By Mark Sundaram
Today’s word is beef – surprisingly enough a word all about war and conquest.
One of the first things you’ll hear when people talk about the history of the English language is the large-scale import of French vocabulary into English when the French-speaking Normans under William the Conqueror invaded Anglo-Saxon England in 1066. This sometimes led to modern English having pairs of words, one from each source, like cow and beef, sheep and mutton, swine and pork – in each case, two words for the animal, one from Anglo-Saxon and one from Norman French. You see, only a relatively small number of Normans came over with William, maybe 5000 at the time of the invasion with another 20,000 over the next little while, compared to the 1.5 million total population of England at the time. But William put his fellow Normans in all the positions of power and influence — they were the major landowners, and the Anglo-Saxon populace made up the peasantry. And so the senses of these pairs of words break down on socio-economic lines: the Anglo-Saxon-derived ‘cow’ came to refer only to the animal, cared for by the Anglo-Saxon peasant, and the French-derived ‘beef’ came to refer only to the meat consumed by the rich Norman landowner. Same goes for sheep/mutton and swine/pork. Turns out they’ve been using French to fancy-up menus for a very long time!
The French ‘boeuf’ (which turned into ‘beef’) comes from Latin bos-bovis, which much later on came into English again as the adjective ‘bovine’. That Latin bov- root is also part of the brand name Bovril. Bovril is a meat extract, somewhat similar to Marmite, which can be spread on toast or mixed with hot water to make a soup-like broth. Bovril was invented in the 1870s by Scotsman John Lawson Johnson while in Canada, fulfilling an order to the French government to supply canned beef for the troops, who had been under-supplied in the recently-ended Franco-Prussian War. After all, we know ‘an army marches on its stomach’. Johnson had been put onto the science of food preservation when he studied at the University of Edinburgh under chemist and statesman Lyon Playfair – whose own contributions to science were somewhat less appetising.
In his political career, while Secretary of Science, Playfair advocated the use of chemical weapons against the Russians in the Crimean War, the first proposal for chemical warfare. The plan was considered, but was rejected as being unethical and “against the rules of warfare”, though Playfair would argue that war was inherently destructive anyway, and anything that made it more destructive without increasing suffering would in fact end up decreasing suffering, an argument that continues to be used for advances in the science of killing. The irony is of course inescapable that this plan was put forward by a man named Play-fair.
But getting back to Bovril, what about the second element of the word? For that, Johnson was inspired by an outlandish science fiction novel called Vril, the Power of the Coming Race, which features a subterranean civilization of superhumans who derive their power from a mystical liquid called Vril. The 1871 novel was written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, also a politician and aristocrat , who is notable for coining a lot of well-known expressions such as “the great unwashed”, “the almighty dollar”, and the cliched literary opening “it was a dark and stormy night”. With such obvious talent, no wonder Bulwer-Lytton valued literary over military endeavour, turning down an offer of a lordship of the admiralty (as well as the throne of Greece), lest it interfere with his literary career. And no surprise that he also coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”! Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Vril was so influential, it not only inspired the name Bovril, but apparently convinced many people that Vril and the underground civilization it supported were real. This may have inspired Nazi-era occultists, at least according to science writer Willy Ley, who fled Nazi Germany to resettle in the United States and advocate the development of rocketry. This accusation was picked up on by conspiracy theorists who imagined the Nazis wanted to use this mystical “Vril” to win the war. But of course, the story was just a load of tripe.
But getting back to the etymology of the word ‘beef’, it actually comes from a Proto-Indo-European root which also, it turns out, gives us the word ‘cow’ by way of the Germanic branch of languages. So in fact, though we started off with the commonly made observation that the words beef and cow are a record of the battles between the French and English in the Norman conquest, etymologically they’re the same word after all. As with most war and conflict, our differences often end up being surface level anyway, and everything is interconnected.
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