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Etymology

The Norman Conquest Is Why Steak Is "Beef" and Not "Cow"

If you've ever wondered why we call meat beef, pork, mutton, and venison instead of cow, pig, sheep, and deer, you can thank the lousy communication skills of a long dead Anglo-Saxon king. King Edward The Confessor died on January 5, 1066, and as he had no children, his brother-in-law Harold Godwin was quickly elected to succeed him. Problem was, Edward had apparently forgotten to tell anyone that he promised the throne to his first cousin once removed: William, Duke of Normandy. William was not happy about that.

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Neither, by the way, was the new King Harold's brother Tostig, who thought he deserved the throne. Tostig allied with the King of Norway to battle King Harold's armies, but was eventually defeated. Unfortunately, Harold's victorious army was pretty beaten up by those battles, which made it all the easier for Duke William's Norman armies to invade and soon defeat the Anglo-Saxons for good, earning William the nickname William the Conqueror (ever heard of him?). On Christmas Day 1066, William was crowned King of England, and the Normans made themselves at home.

Here's where things get interesting: The Normans spoke French. Their newly conquered subjects spoke Old English. That led to some odd language transformations. Over time, the Normans bequeathed more than 10,000 words to English, and since they were the ruling class, most of these referred to posh topics such as nobility (crown, castle, sovereign), government and law (city, parliament, justice, prison), and high living—most notably, cuisine (banquet, herb, roast, biscuit). So while humble farmers kept calling their animals cows, swine, sheep, and deer, once those animals were put on a fancy plate their names became French. Don't believe us? Check out the modern-day French words for these meats: boeuf, porc, mouton, and venaison. Learn more about how the French language invaded English in the videos below.

The Double Vocabulary Of English

Find out why we have so many twin words for the same thing.

The History Of English

Hear how our language came to be.

The Origin Of The Word "Coup"

Three guesses why this war-centric word has French roots.

Why Is He Called "William The Conqueror"?

Discover the legacy of this Norman king.

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