A flitch of etymology

I was reading Claire Keegan’s short story collection Antarctica* when I came across a fairly uncommon word:

He talks about sheep and cattle and the weather and how this little country of ours is in a woeful state while Bridie sets the table, puts out the Chef sauce and the Colman’s mustard and cuts big, thick slices off a flitch of beef or boiled ham. I sit by the window and keep an eye on the sheep who stare, bewildered, from the car. Da eats everything in sight while I build a little tower of biscuits and lick the chocolate off and give the rest to the sheepdog under the table.

claire keegan - antarctica - faber & faber book coverA flitch in this context is a side of bacon, generally one that’s salted and cured. Historically it could refer also to other kinds of meat, such as whale – note Keegan’s ambiguous ‘beef or boiled ham’. This is the word’s original meaning, and it goes all the way back to Old English flicce and further still in other Germanic tongues.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says flicce is:

from Proto-Germanic *flekkja (cognates: Old Norse flikki, Middle Low German vlicke ‘piece of flesh’). Not immediately from flesh (n.), but perhaps from the same PIE root, *pleik– ‘to tear’ (see flay).

The Flitch of Dunmow was presented every year at Little Dunmow, in Essex, to any married couple who could prove they had lived together without quarreling for a year and a day, a custom mentioned in early references as dating to mid-13c., revived 19c.

For more on the ‘Flitch of Dunmow’ custom, see Michael Quinion and Wikipedia.

In the 19thC flitch gained a new but analogous sense: a longitudinal slab cut from a tree trunk. The OED notes that it ‘usually [has] the natural surface as one of its sides’. From this derives a sense used in carpentry, where a flitch (or flitch-plate) is a strengthening plank that’s part of a compound beam.

There are rare verb uses too, where to flitch means to cut a log or a piece of meat into flitches. Oxford Dictionaries labels the bacon-related noun use – Keegan’s – as chiefly dialectal, so I’d be interested to know if readers are familiar with it, and if so from where.


* Antarctica is Keegan’s first book, of three to date, but I read it last (and found it brilliant, unshowy and bewitching). She has appeared on Sentence first before in a post about the phrase make strange, which she used in her beautiful novella Foster.

12 Responses to A flitch of etymology

  1. edwardvdp@yahoo.co.uk says:

    Ah, like the Dunmow Flitch? I trust it is not related to Swedish flicka? Nice post, thanks, Stan.


    Sent from my iPad


  2. John Cowan says:

    I’m only familiar with flitches of bacon, not other meats (never mind wood), and only from books.

  3. elizdanjou says:

    Definitely would say “side” or “slab” of bacon or ham here. I did encounter a new-to-me phrase for a hunk o’ meat when I moved from city to rural area, though: at a wedding or other big communal meal here in small-town Ontario, people talk of serving a “hip of beef.” I’d never heard that in 30 years of parties and food in Toronto, though whether that’because the vocabulary was different or the type of party itself was different I don’t know!

    So at first I wondered if “flitch” might somehow be related to “hip” (which I might be spelling wrong; I’ve only heard it). The short “i” is the only connection, but it wouldn’t be impossible! The “flesh” connection to “flitch” makes a lot more sense, though, as does the “top of leg” connection to “hip of beef.”

    OK, now I’m hungry!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Side is what I would say too, and I’ve never heard hip used! (I could probably learn all sorts of usages like this by eavesdropping in butcher’s shops.) Nor had I come across the wood-related sense until I looked up the word after reading Keegan’s story.

  4. nugget59 says:

    Interesting… the reference to bacon may have been what grabbed my attention initially, but I found the post informative.

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