Tag Archives: etymology of beef

Cassidese Glossary – Beef

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

This is not the word beef in the sense of cow meat but in the slang sense of to have an argument or a complaint against someone. The origins of this expression are unknown. There are various suggestions on line involving disputes between sheep-herders and cow-punchers in the old west or soldiers complaining about their rations in the Civil War. Neither of these seems very likely. The most interesting and attractive claim is that it comes from an early 18th century term which seems to have been a forerunner of rhyming slang, ‘to call hot beef’ which apparently was a way of shouting ‘stop thief!’ From that, the phrase ‘to cry beef’ or ‘to call beef’ came to mean ‘to raise the alarm’ or to make a complaint against someone.

Cassidy’s claim is that this comes from the ‘Irish’ phrase b’aifirt, which he claims means ‘rebuked, blamed, accused, complained; reproached, “beefed”’. (The dictionary definition of aifirt is to rebuke, reproach.) The phrase b’aifirt is odd because the copula is and its past and conditional form ba are usually used with adjectives (is breá liom) or with nouns (ba ghrá leo é). I cannot think of any circumstances where a verbal noun is used like this with a copular structure, either the present tense or the past/conditional form.

Even if we accepted that this is a genuinely possible phrase, it would be pronounced baffirch or baffirt. Why would this become beef, and why would a phrase meaning something like ‘was a rebuke’ be used as a noun, rather than perfectly good Irish words meaning complaint or blame or cause of conflict like gearán, clamhsán, casaoid, milleán, locht, cnámh spairne?