George P. Marsh
Lectures on the English Language
(London: John Murray, 1863) pp. 167-169.

George P. Marsh

Lecture XI on the English Language


Old English Vocabulary


Corn, Meat, Flesh

§ 4. In a former lecture , by way of illustrating my views of the value of etymology as pursued by what may be called the simple historical, in distinction from the more ambitious linguistic, method, I traced the word grain from its source, through its secondary, to its present signification, in one of its senses. Corn, the Gothic etymological equivalent of grain, has also an interesting history, and it serves as a good exemplification of the modifications which the use and meanings of words undergo from the influence of local conditions. Like granum, it signifies both a seed and a minute particle, and the two words are not so unlike in form as to make it at all improbable that they are derived from a common radical, in some older cognate language, allied to the verb to grow, and originally meaning seed. Corn was early applied as a generic term, to the cereal grains or breadstuffs, the most useful of seeds, and in fact almost the only ones regularly employed as the food of man. The word is still current in all countries where the Gothic languages are spoken, but its signification is, in popular use, chiefly confined to the particular grain most important in the rural economy of each. Thus in England, wheat, being the most considerable article of cultivated produce, is generally called corn. In most parts of Germany this name is given to rye; in the Scandinavian kingdoms, to barley; and in the United States, to the great agricultural staple, maize, or Indian corn; the name in every instance being applied to the particular grain on which the prosperity of the husbandman and the sustenance of the labourer chiefly depend.

In the countries bordering the Mediterranean, and in other warm climates, animal food is not much used, and bread is emphatically the staff of life. Hence in those nations, as with the ancient Romans, the word bread stands for food generally, other edibles being considered a mere relish or accompaniment, and this is still true of some colder climates, where the poverty of the labouring class confines them in the main to a like simple diet. The English figurative use of bread for the same purpose, however, is not founded on the habits of the people, but is borrowed from other literatures. The word meat has undergone a contrary process. The earliest occurrence of this word in any cognate language is the form mats in Ulphilas, where it signifies food in general. The Swedish verb mätta, to satiate or satisfy, and other allied words, suggest the probability that the original sense of the radical, in its application to food, was that which satisfies hunger, though it must be confessed that great uncertainty attends all attempts to trace back words essentially so primitive to still simpler forms and less complex significations. The Anglo-Saxon and oldest meaning of meat is food, and I believe it is always used in that sense in our English translations of the Bible. In England, and especially in the United States, animal food is now the most prominent article of diet, and meat has come to signify almost exclusively the flesh of land animals.

The primitive abundance of the oak and nut-bearing trees in England, and the northern portions of Continental Europe, facilitated the keeping of swine to an extent which, now that the forests have been converted into arable land, is neither convenient nor economically advantageous, and the flesh of swine constituted a more important part of the aliment of the people than that of any other domestic animal. The word flesh appears to have originally signified pork only, and in the form, a flitch of bacon, the primitive sense is still preserved, but, with the extension of agriculture, the herds of swine became less numerous, and as the flesh of other quadrupeds entered more and more into use, the sense of the word was extended so as to include them also. Flesh and meat have now become nearly synonymous, the difference being, that the former embraces the fibrous part of animals generally, without reference to its uses, the latter that of such only as employed for human food. At present we use, as a compendious expression for all the materials of both vegetable and animal diet, bread and meat. Piers Ploughma says:

            "Flesshe and breed bothe
            To riche and to poore;"
and a verse or two lower,
            "And all manere of men
            That through mete and drynke libbeth."


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