What's your beef?

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

What's your beef?

Post by RWalter » Thu Nov 10, 2005 6:05 pm

Meaning arguement, complaint, disagreement, etc., and nothing to do with cows. Any history on this odd expression?

Re: What's your beef?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Mar 22, 2011 12:56 am

(Asked of someone who doesn't mince their words.)

Re: What's your beef?

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Mar 22, 2011 10:58 pm

RWalter, wherever you are, 5 years – that’s a slow reaction time. But Edwin, the the mills of WW grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding minced!

This BEEF began its life as an intransitive verb [1888] and soon took on the noun meaning [1899] and appearing in such expressions as WHAT’S YOUR BEEF? and I had a beef with him (not a hamburger).

BEEF verb [1888] Slang (originally U.S.): To complain, gripe, grumble, protest. Hence verbal noun ‘beefing.’ Earlier it meant to talk loudly or idly.
<1888 “He'll beef an' kick like a steer an' let on he won't never wear 'em.”—New York World, 13 May>

<1889 “He will be coming down town again soon on crutches, ‘beefing’ about cancer of the stomach.”—The Road (Denver, Colorado), 28 December, page4/3>

<1922 “Course I wouldn't beef about it to the fellows at the Roughnecks' Table there.”—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, v. Page 60>

<1957 “Stop beefing, Frank. You'll be seeing her again soon enough.”—Forgotten Plan by H. Croome, xi. page 138>

<1986 “I don’t like to beef about the bank.”—Chicago Sun-Times, 10 April>

<2011 “The Fox Sports commentary team constantly beefed the ‘fatigue factor’ as an excuse for United's mediocre performance.”—New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 7 February>
BEEF noun [1899] Slang (originally U.S.): A complaint, protest, grievance, gripe, objection, argument, a bone of contention.
<1899 “He made a Horrible Beef because he couldn't get Loaf Sugar for his Coffee.”—Fables in Slang (1900) by George Ade, page 80>

<1931 “To round himself up with his ever-loving wife in case of a beef from her over keeping the baby out in the night air.”—Guys and Dolls (1932) by Damon Runyon, iv. page 79>

<1946 “What's your beef about taking ninety per?”—Money in the Bank by P. Wodehouse, xii. page 95>

<1968 “In the language of the planet, what’s your beef?”—Star-Trek (NBC-TV)

<1983 “Queen’s safe, so what’s your beef?”—Green Arrow, July, page 22>

<1991 “My beef was that all the sentiments . . . were . . .contrived.”—View from Above by W. Chamberlain, page 97>

<2001 “My beef with him was that I felt disappointed and betrayed.”—New York Times, 5 April>

<2010 “. . . to claim that he is one of Namcy Pelosi’s foot soldiers is ludicrous. Actually, my beef with him is that he is not.”—The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk), 22 October>

And now for the origin of the above BEEF. It seems that the ultimate origin of this BEEF is uncertain. (>;) But here is my best shot:

The Oxford Dictionary of Slang states without reservation that the verb beef (1888), meaning to complain, is “originally U.S. from earlier sense, talk loudly or idly. ‘Stop beefing Frank. You’ll be seeing her again soon enough’”—Honoria Croome

That’s nice, but where did the earlier sense “talk loudly or idly” come from?

First thing is to establish that cowboys, etc. referred to a steer as “a beef."

COWBOY LINGO (1936) by Ramon F. Adams

The west created many technical distinctions in speaking of its cattle. . . If a male [was reserved for breeding purposes] he became a ‘yearling’ for a year and then a ‘steer’ until he was full grown, then became a ‘beef’. . . On the other hand, a female, after her first year became a ‘heifer’ . . . and so on successively until she also went in to the beef grade.

SPEAKING OF ANIMALS: A DICTIONARY OF ANIMAL METAPHORS (1995) by R. A. Palmatier takes us to the final step, which is his guess:

BEEF verb and noun: Source: Cattle, beef almost certainly relates to cattle [[see above]] . . . the best guess is that . . . alludes to the loud bawling or bellowing that steers (and cows) make when they have not been fed (or milked). [see Dictionary of English Idioms (1986) Gulland, Hinds-Howell, also Loose cannons and Red Herrings: A Book of Lost Metaphors (1988) by R. Claiborne]


BEEF verb and noun: To shout yell: theatrical (circa 1880-1930). Hence to grouse [[complain]]. Suggested as genesis: bull—bellow–beef. . . To set up a hue and cry.

(Definitions and quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Partridge, and archived sources)

Well, I’d call that moderate, not quite exceeding minced, but in any case better than a kick in the chops (maybe).

Ken – February 22, 2011

Re: What's your beef?

Post by trolley » Tue Mar 22, 2011 11:57 pm

I never get into a beef with anyone beefier than me.

Re: What's your beef?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Mar 23, 2011 2:31 am

The title of this thread reminds me of the 1984 ad slogan of the US fast-food chain Wendy's, "Where's the beef?"

Wikipedia describes both the original ad and the subsequent use of the slogan in the 1984 presidential election campaign.
Signature: -- Looking up a word? Try OneLook's metadictionary (--> definitions) and reverse dictionary (--> terms based on your definitions)8-- Contribute favourite diary entries, quotations and more here8 -- Find new postings easily with Active Topics8-- Want to research a word? Get essential tips from experienced researcher Ken Greenwald

Re: What's your beef?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Thu Mar 24, 2011 8:54 pm

Worth waiting for, Ken!

Post Reply