iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast
A teenager I know was recently at a weekend party up at a lake. Evidently two of the girls there had an altercation and one pushed the other off the wharf and into the water. This was reported to me in the following terms:
“Suzie and Nancy really had beef.”
This was a new one on me.
For a second I wondered if they had shared a nice steak.
Good word beef; interesting history.
Cows have been around people for some time. Long enough that there was an Indo-European word for cow gwou.
This reached us as cow via Old English. But while it was getting here it was also getting to Latin by a parallel route to arrive there as bov. By the time William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066 the French had turned the Latin into beuf.
So there was William looking out the window of his castle and in the adjacent field he saw an animal he’d call a beuf. While out in the field the guy with the pitchfork looked at the same beast and thought it was a cow.
Since William and his court spent more time with beuf after it had been sliced up into steak, the word for the meat of this animal took on the name beef. But the guy with the pitchfork still had to manage these ponderous creatures and so the Old English name stuck to the live versions.
It took a little while for the French word to creep into writings that we can now accepted as English. French arrived as the official language of England in 1066 but it was almost the year 1300 before beef has its first citation as an English word.
So that explains why I thought these two girls were having steak. But how did my teenage friend get to understand the word beef to mean “fight”?
Well, in 1869 Harper’s Magazine reported on the exploitation of some buffalo for their meat and used the word beef in its article with a meaning of “slaughter.”
The buffalo were to be beefed.
The OED reports that this sense fed a slang expression where to beef someone was to knock them down; showing first in writing in 1926.
I don’t believe that this directly fed into my teenage friend’s use of the word beef to mean “fight” but in 1888 and 1889 we have the first two citations for beef meaning “to complain,” as in “what’s your beef.”
This is as far as my understanding of the word beef goes; which is to say I’m right up to date with the jargon of 120 years ago.
But Urbandictionary does have entries that support my teenage friend’s use of beef meaning to argue or fight. The implication is that this is from gangster rap and likely evolved from the “complaint” meaning to also encompass a meaning of “grudge” as well as “fight.”
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.