I rebound off a question asked on French Language & Usage: in many languages, some designations for animal meats (in its raw, uncooked and uncured form) differ from the live animal's name itself. Examples in various languages include:

  • in English: pig / pork
  • in French: cabillaud / morue
  • in Russian: свинья / свинина (a cognate of свинья)
  • in Czech: prase / vepřové (a cognate of vepř, meaning barrow)
  • in Japanese: 豚 / 豚肉 (lit. pig meat, the interesting part here is that 豚 already includes radicals for both meat and pig which makes the addition of 肉 somewhat redundant)

How universal is this feature? What could have given rise to it, apart from the understandable need to differentiate between the live animal and the meat, which could be achieve by saying, e.g., pig meat instead of pork.

  • I would say this is an example that the animals and the meat are nog necessarily linguistically mapped to each other. I don't think many people would consider bacon or ham to be pork cooked, prepared, or cured in a certain way. It seems to have much more to do with social issues than linguistics issues. Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 8:29
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    In german we tend to use the name of the animal, possibly with -fleisch (meat) appended.
    – starblue
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 11:42
  • I wonder if even having separate words for "animal" and "meat" is universal... Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 20:35
  • how about fish?
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Oct 3, 2011 at 5:24
  • Some in the kangaroo meat industry are trying to come up with a culinary name for kangaroo.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 9:48

5 Answers 5


There's a broader phenomenon here: we name things based on what they're used for, and not always just on what they're made from. Some examples off the top of my head:

  • The same square of plain cotton cloth could be a "rag," a "bandana," a "handkerchief," a "placemat" or a "wrapper" depending on the use you intend to put it to. Similarly, a big rectangle of terrycloth could be a "bathmat" or a "towel," depending on what you're using it for.

  • "Seed corn" is just ordinary corn that someone intends to plant in the future. It's physically indistinguishable from other kinds of corn. In some languages, there are separate, unrelated words for "corn kernels used as food" and "corn kernels set aside as seeds."

  • Where I grew up, a "chock" is a triangular wedge of wood that you put behind the wheels of a truck to keep it from rolling downhill. An identical wedge of wood that was, say, being used as part of a little kid's set of toy blocks wouldn't be called a "chock."

  • A stoat that's being raised for fur is called an "ermine," as is the fur it produces.

So you could ask the same question for all of these: "Why aren't rags just called wiping cloths? Why aren't handkerchiefs just called nose cloths? Why did we coin the word chock instead of calling them wheel wedges? Why isn't an ermine just a fur stoat?"

I'm not sure I have a positive answer to those questions. But it's good to keep in mind that language is rarely as logical or as efficient as it could be. So I'd look at this as a general feature of human language rather than a specific weirdness about livestock terminology. Sometimes we coin new words for things that we use for a special purpose — even when it's redundant to do so.

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    But wouldn't this mean that we would have to think of "beef" and "pork" as uses? And what makes a cloth for a nose simpler than a kerchief for a hand anyway? Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 20:44
  • Is there a particular term for this kind of thing?
    – taylor
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 16:10
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    This is a great answer, but I'm skeptical that this language development is redundant or less efficient!
    – Mark D
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 21:20

It has long been noted that in English, the while the words for many animals are of Germanic etymology, the words for their meats are of French etymology. This must be related to the Norman French invasion of England in 1066, and the usual story goes: the peasants were too poor and oppressed to eat the meat from the animals they raised, because it all went to the French ruling class, and the ruling class never touched the actual animals.

Whether or not the story about why is true, language contact is certainly the culprit.

Notice that for less commonly eaten meats, we just use the name of the animal: bear meat; likewise for meat of North American origin: bison burger.

  • 1
    I'm pretty sure I read a debunking of the class based animal vs food name story, if anybody knows about it a link would be great. In any case the extra words we have did come from the language getting more complicated by contact with another language, which to me seems like an important cultural factor even if not a direct linguistic factor. Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 13:06
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    @hippietrail, if you can scrounge up that link, I'd really appreciate it.
    – JoFrhwld
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 14:44
  • @hippietrail, Marvin Harris wrote a number of books on food and anthropology, many of which were popular with the general public. You probably read some of them in the past. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Harris
    – Tangurena
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 18:45
  • @hippietrail another request for a link to that debunking! I've broken out that particular piece of potential apocrypha a few times myself, so i'd certainly like to know if it turned out to be false.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 17:58
  • Then again it seems I've clicked on this Straight Dope link before so perhaps that was it: Why do we eat "beef" and "pork" rather than "cow" and "pig"? Basically they say "This is a plausible argument. But proven? No." Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 18:15

Here is a funny clip from a dramatization of a Japanese class: Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo episode 1 clips.

At 2:10, a discussion begins about tuna. The teacher explains the classifier used on tuna in its different forms:

  • Swimming in the ocean: ippiki
  • When caught: ippon
  • When first cut at market (big pieces): icchou
  • When cut into medium pieces: hitokoro
  • When cut up thin and packaged for the supermarket: hitosaku
  • When it enters your mouth: hitokire

In this example, the name for the animal does not change. However, the classifier changes slightly when the tuna is countable (first three) and dramatically when it becomes destined for the table (last three).

In English, tuna seems to undergo less dramatic changes:

  • My kid hates tuna.
  • I caught a 300 pound tuna.


  • My kid hates tuna fish.
  • ? I caught a 300 pound tuna fish.

Here, tuna fish makes it clear that it is a food.

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    Nitpick: The words you have quoted are not classifiers but numeral+classifier combinations. The classifiers are, respectively, hiki, hon, chō, koro, saku, kire; the numerals are all 1.
    – Zhen Lin
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 16:18
  • @rajah9: I've always assumed "tuna fish" to be strictly American English (somehow influenced by German Thunfisch). I've certainly never heard it in Australian, British, Irish, or New Zealand English but couldn't say one way or the other if it's in Canadian or any of the other Englishes. Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 17:07
  • @Zhen Lin, thank you for your precision. I agree that the numerals are all 1, but isn't it interesting that the first three use ichi (Onyomi) and the second three use hitotsu (Kunyomi). It's almost as if the classifier influences the numeral.
    – rajah9
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 22:36
  • @hippietrail, so does BE distinguish between tuna swimming in the ocean and tuna bathed in oil? Incidentally, I think that "tuna fish" in AE is on the decline, in favor of "tuna."
    – rajah9
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 22:40
  • 4
    @rajah9: It's not ‘almost as if’, it's simply true. There are native classifiers which take native numerals and there are Sino-Japonic classifiers which take Sino-Japonic numerals.
    – Zhen Lin
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 0:53

In Spanish and Galician (my two native languages), we use the same words for the live animal and its flesh when eaten in general:

  • Cerdo (ES) / Porco (GL): Pig or pork
  • Pollo / Polo: Chicken
  • Ternera / Tenreiro: Veal or beef
  • etc.

However, in Spanish we distinguish between pez (fish) when alive or dead but not intended to be used as food, and pescado (also fish) when captured, processed or served as a meal.

So, answering the question in the OP, I guess this is not a universal phenomenon.


In French, all the words are the same if they refer to the same animal or product. There is a difference between "cabillaud", the fish still fresh, and "morue", which is dried and salted, in the past from "Terre-Neuve".

However, "porc" is a little more polite than "cochon" ; you should ask for "une côtelette de porc" at the butcher's. But "Cette ferme est un élevage de cochons" is perfectly correct.

And beef is always "bœuf" at the butcher's, even if is a cow. For leather, it is always "vache" or "vachette", even it is a bull.

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