n. pl. beeves (bēvz) or beef
a. A full-grown steer, bull, ox, or cow, especially one intended for use as meat.
b. The flesh of a slaughtered full-grown steer, bull, ox, or cow.
2. Informal Human muscle; brawn.
3. pl. beefs Slang A complaint.
intr.v. beefed, beef·ing, beefsPhrasal Verb:
beef up Informal
To make or become greater or stronger: beef up the defense budget.
[Middle English, from Old French buef, from Latin bōs, bov-; see gwou- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Word History: As has often been remarked, the great social disparities of medieval European society are revealed by the Modern English words for different sorts of meat. In medieval England, meats like beef, pork, veal, and mutton were presumably more often eaten by the educated and wealthy classes—most of whom could speak French or at least admired French culture—and the Modern English terms for these meats are uniformly of French origin. (The French sources of the English words are now spelled bœuf, porc, veau, and mouton, and the French words can refer both to the animal and to the meat it provides.) The English-speaking peasants who actually raised the animals—and who presumably subsisted on mostly vegetarian fare—continued to use the original Germanic words ox, swine, calf, and sheep when talking in the barnyard, and so the animals themselves have kept their native names to this day. One such Germanic word is actually related etymologically to its French counterpart. Cow comes from Old English cū, which is descended from the Indo-European root *gwou-, "cow." This root has descendants in most of the branches of the Indo-European language family. Among those descendants is the Latin word bōs, "cow," whose stem form, bov-, eventually became the Old French word buef, the source of English beef.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
The American Heritage Dictionary Blog
Check out our blog, updated regularly, for new words and revised definitions, interesting images from the 5th edition, discussions of usage, and more.