Is the Plural of Beef Really Beeves?

Posted on 21 Mar 2014 15:20

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According to a small article at Foodbeast, the plural of beef is actually beeves. Apparently, this is the plural form as indicated in the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. Is this true? Yes. Is it just weird and silly? While it does seem silly to think of more than one "beef," the word has a history most of which most of us are unaware.

First, it is a bit important to point out that the word beef, as it is used today, has no comparison to the word sheep, deer, or moose. Those are the names of animals, not the term used for their meat. The word for deer meat is venison. We don't have a plural for that, although there may have been one somewhere back in history. We do not say, I'm eating some venisons today…mmmm-mmmm, don't I loves me some venisons! OK, maybe some people say that. But, we don't say I'm eating some beefs.

You may not have realized this, but moose are in the deer family. You may even have seen the term mule-deer, even though we tend to think of deer only in terms of the small kind with fluffy white tails. So, mule meat is venison, as well. But it is rarely called that, and instead, we tend to call the meat of moose simply, moose. The meat of sheep is called mutton.

Beef comes from cattle, especially cows, but it could be from a bull or even an ox.

The word beef is derived from Latin, although the meat from cattle was actually called bubula. However, early on, in the 7th century, Anglo-Saxon speakers were referring to the meat of cattle as cu and that word became the middle English cou. Clearly, this is where our modern word cow comes from, but we no longer use it to refer to meat, but instead, it is reserved for the animal itself. It was actually the Norman-French invasion that brought the modern word beef into our language, as the older French term boef, which had derived from the Latin bubula. Although the word cou stuck around to refer to live animals, the term beef became firmly established to refer to the meat. There are, of course, more details to this story, but let's move on to the plural.1. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Plural of Beef

beef: n. 1. the flesh of a cow, bull, or ox, used as food. (plural beeves /bēvz/) Farming A cow, bull, or ox fattened for its meat.

In early Latin, the actual animals that bobula came from were called bovus, which could mean anything to do with cows or oxen. Our modern word bovine comes from this source. The question is if cow (or bull/oxen) was used to refer to the actual animal, and beef referred to its meat, how could there be a plural? Today we use meat as a mass noun. Think of meat, then, as similar to a word like concrete or wood. These items exist as undifferentiated wholes which cannot be separated and counted. There are no concretes. Meat is similar. Only occasionally do we break this rule and use a plural form of meat to refer to a group of more than one type or variety meats. Even then, we are just as like to use a phrase such as "several varieties of meat were on display."

Beef would seem to be similar to meat, in this regard. Well, it turns out that there was a time when a cow that was ready to slaughter, meaning it had been fattened up and readied for market, was then referred to as a beef. Likewise, the slaughtered carcass might be called a beef. And two or more market-ready cows, or carcasses, were beeves.

In case you're wondering, if you have a beef with more than one person, the plural is beefs!

See also the plural of asparagus.

1. Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. Beef: A Global History. London: Reaktion, 2013

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