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Q From Alec Cawley: In an article about cattle exports, The Economist used beefing in the sense of “whinging, complaining, or moaning”. How did cow-meat, usually regarded as a premium meal, become associated with such a downbeat concept?

A The verb beef, with the meaning you give, has been in the language for a surprisingly long time — it’s on record from the 1860s.

We have to go back further to trace the verb to its beginnings. In the early eighteenth century there was a slang phrase to cry hot beef or give hot beef, which meant to raise the alarm, to start pursuit or to set up a hue and cry. This may have been based on a street hawker’s cry and to have been a pun on stop thief! The New Canting Dictionary records in 1725, “to cry beef upon us: they have discover’d us and are in Pursuit of us”. A few years later, the verb beef by itself also meant to raise a hue and cry and this continued in use well into the nineteenth century.

The next step is a bit disconnected, because the written evidence for it only begins to appear in the 1860s and it doesn’t chart the way that beef had been developing. One change was that beef became a general cry of alarm, unconnected with theft, and then merely a shout or cry, a sense that came out of the theatre and was later taken to Australia by emigrants. At around the same period beef shifted to mean a complaint, thus giving us the slang sense we have today.

You gave your message the punning subject line what’s the beef? That obviously comes from the verb to beef and is still a common idiom meaning “what’s the problem?” or “what’s going on?”, though it typically turns up in the popular prints as a humorous reference to ranching, mad cow disease, the Calgary stampede, McDonalds restaurants and related bovine topics. Here’s a recent example:

The Dallas Observer newspaper even had a story about it more than a year ago, based on a press release issued by the Houston-based chain. So, what’s the beef all of a sudden?

The Fort Worth Star Telegram (Texas), 9 Jan. 2011.

We must, of course, make a careful distinction between what’s the beef? and where’s the beef? The latter, which questions the importance, significance, inner meaning or substance of something, derives from the early-1980s advertising campaign for Wendy’s hamburgers in the US and Canada and briefly became a political slogan.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Mar. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 19 March 2011.