Of bacon and “v” sounds

I’ve wondered for a while why we often don’t call our meat the same thing as the animal that it comes from. For instance, you don’t cook up some ground cow, or eat strips of crispy fried pig. You eat beef and bacon.

I am currently reading “The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way” by Bill Bryson, who is a terrific writer and can make even something seemingly as dry as the history of language extremely interesting. Anyway, in a discussion about Britain under Norman rule (French Vikings!), he illustrates the tiered social structure of Norman society — the French-speaking ruling class vs. the English-speaking peasantry — and the linguistic differences, as such:

The breakdown can be illustrated in two ways. First, the more humble trades tended to have Anglo-Saxon names (baker, miller, shoemaker), while the more skilled trades adopted French names (mason, painter, tailor). At the same time, animals in the field usually were called by English names (sheep, cow, ox), but once cooked and brought to the table, they were generally given French names (beef, mutton, veal, bacon).

So there’s one possible explanation.

Something else Bryson mentions, that I’d never thought about consciously before, but now find fascinating:

When we make an everyday observation like “I have some homework to do,” we pronounce the word “hav.” But when we become emphatic about it — “I have to go now” — we pronounce it “haff.”

Weird, isn’t it? I think that it’s actually the phrase “have to” that gets pronounced “haff to.” When it means “must,” the v sound turns into an s. When it is used in the possessive sense, the v remains a v.


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