One thing we were discussing last week at the French conversation group was words for animals and their meat. In French the words for meat are also used for the animals: bœuf means beef and ox, porc means pork and pig, mouton means mutton and sheep, while in English there are different words for these things.

The popular explanation for the different English words for the animals and their meat is that after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, the animals were reared by the English, who called them , pecges and scéapes (cows, pigs and sheep) and eaten by the Normans, who called them boef, porc and motun (beef, pork and mutton). However the distinction between the names for the meat and the animals didn’t become set until the 18th century, and mutton and beef were used to refer to sheep and cows for many centuries after the Norman Conquest.

Bœuf comes from the Latin bos (ox, cow), the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root of which is gwóu (cow). This is also the root of vache, the French word for cow, via the Latin vacca (cow), and of the English word cow, via the Old English (pl. ) and the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word kwom. In fact many of the words for cow, bull or cattle in Indo-European languages probably come from the PIE root gwóu. Examples include: (Irish and Scottish Gaelic), booa (Manx), buwch (Welsh), bugh (Cornish), buoc’h (Breton), govs (Latvian), կով (kov) (Armenian), گاو (gav – Persian) and Kuh (German).

As well as ox or steer and beef, bœuf also means (a) surprising; unusual; (b) stupid (in Swiss French); (c) (musical) jam session / jazz improvisation.

Idioms containing bœuf include:

  • avoir un boeuf sur la langue (to have a cow on the tongue) = to keep quiet; not give anything away
  • boeuf carottes (beef carrots) = internal affairs (Police)
  • comme un boeuf (as an ox) = very strong
  • gagner son boeuf (to earn one’s beef) = to earn a living
  • on n’est pas des boeufs (we are not cattle) = a little consideration and respect, I beg you

Meanings of mouton include: (a) sheep; (b) mutton; (c) sheep / lamb (someone easily led); (d) stool pigeon / grass; (e) moutons = white horses (on waves) / fluff / fluffy or fleecy clouds. Mutton and mouton possibly come from the Gaulish multo (ram) via the Middle Latin multonem and the Old French moton (ram, wether, sheep).

Idioms containing mouton include:

  • mouton à cinq pattes (a sheep with five feet) = white elephant rara avis / rare bird (something difficult or impossible to find)
  • revenir à ses moutons (to return to one’s sheep) = to return to the thread / subject of one’s discourse
  • suivre comme un mouton (to follow like a sheep) = to act like everyone else; gregarious


This entry was posted in Breton, Cornish, English, Etymology, French, German, Irish, Language, Latin, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases.

7 Responses to Bœuf

  1. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Go is the Sanskrit word for ox or cow, and gaur (Indian bison, from Hindu) comes from the same root.

    One of my favorite terms from geology is mouton roche— “rock sheep”. This is an outcrop which has been eroded into a characteristic shape by past glacial activity. (It’s not all that sheeplike, actually, but maybe from a distance, looking into a glacially carved alpine valley…)

  2. Yenlit says:

    Do you mean ‘rara avis’ (rare bird) rather than ‘white elephant’ which is a burdensome gift?

  3. Kate D says:

    I’ve heard of this before. Is it true that chickens are still called chicken on the plate because they were the food of the poorer non-Norman classes?

  4. Simon says:

    Yenlit – yes, rara avis / rare bird is a better translation of mouton à cinq pattes.

    Kate – not sure about chicken. I’ll try to find out and write a post about it today.

  5. Sandra says:

    A saying with bœuf:
    Qui vole un œuf vole un bœuf (the person who has stolen an egg, a small thing, will go on stealing something bigger, an ox).
    By the way, the keystrokes for œ found for example in bœuf, are alt+0156 for Windows and Compose, o, e with Ubuntu (I don’t know with Mac).
    Un œil de bœuf : a small round window

  6. Chris Miller says:

    Option-q on the Mac American and Canadian English keyboard layouts. This may differ for others though. On iPhone type soft keyboards, just press and hold a letter for similar ones including diacritics to pop up.

  7. Amandine says:

    The use of “bœuf” for a stupid person works in France too.

    An other expression : “Mettre la charrue avant les bœufs” (to put the plough before the oxes) : to put the cart before the horse

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