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The Language of the Culinary Profession

1066 and All That

And swine is good Saxon, said the Jester; but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered and hung up by the heels, like a traitor? Pork, answered the swineherd. I am very glad every fool knows that too, said Wamba, and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name, but becomes a Norman, and is called pork when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?

(Walter Scott. Ivanhoe)cott. Ivanhoe)

The influence of the French culinary tradition on the English language of cooking started with the Norman Conquest (1066) and has continued uninterrupted over the centuries. After the Conquest it was, of course, particularly in the context of cuisine of the ruling classes that French predominated. The first cookbook from Britain is the twelfth-century volume by Alexander Neckham, an Augustinian canon who was a native of St Albans (1157-1217) and later a teacher at the University of Paris. The work prescribes for the high rank families. It rarely uses any English terms for cooking, Latin and Norman-French being the languages employed.  Other major works on early English cooking also prescribe for the ruling classes. A vellum roll called Forme of Cury, supposedly written by the cook of Richard II, as well as The Noble Book of Cookery, cater for and describe royal and aristocratic entertainment.

The Norman-French predominance in cooking matters has become epitomized in the oft-noted but nonetheless remarkable contrast between the Anglo-Saxon origin of most of the words for live animals (e.g., cow, calf, deer, sheep, pig) and the French derivation of the corresponding terms for the flesh of these animals as it appears in the butchers shop or on the table (e.g., beef, veal, venison, mutton, pork). The usual explanation of these divergences is that, after the Conquest, the Normans left the care of the animals to their Saxon menials, who went on using the old names for the live creatures. The meat went to the tables of the Norman masters and was named with the words they knew. Walter Scott gave this idea currency in Ivanhoe. Not all the meat went to the Normans: the less favoured portions, the offal, went to the lower orders and we still talk of oxtail, calf's liver, sheep's head and pig's kidneys, for instance.





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