The class was disturbed by a sudden burst of shouting and screaming. “Would you look out the window, sir?” said the teacher. “It sounds as though someone is enjoying themselves.” The sounds had come from the soccer pitch, so presumably the school’s team had scored a goal.
”When I was at school, sir, shouting like that would have meant only one thing – a ruckus.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “accompanied by the chant, fight! Fight! Fight!”
”We don’t say fight anymore,” said one of the students. People shout, ‘beef’ now.”
None of the class knew why the word beef was used for a fight and we returned to the business of pie charts.
Asking a nephew about the use of “beef” he said it was also used in his school. “If you don’t want to get involved in a fight, you say, ‘I’m a vegetarian.’”
In the 1970s, fights at school would seem to break out for no apparent reason. There would be an exchange of words, during which one or other of the protagonists might have backed off, and then a sudden flurry of kicks and punches before both would fall to the ground in a wrestling match in which no holds were barred. It would always seem to be a PE teacher who would come running, perhaps because they were outside, perhaps because they were the most appropriately dressed for intervening, perhaps because, knowing the frailties of the human body, they were often the most humane.
Fights would usually last under a minute. By the time the crowd had gathered, the scrap was over. The teacher would be holding both combatants by the scruff of their necks. Muddied, bloodied, they would be forcibly taken to the headmaster’s office.
Fights were considered a spectator sport by most pupils, they would provide material for gossip for days afterwards. Often, there would be the expectation of a repeat of the battle, pupils from the same community, attending the same school, would have found it difficult to entirely avoid each other.
It seems strange, in retrospect, that people thought such violence was fun to watch. Blood and bruises never seemed that entertaining, but perhaps there was something primeval in the conflicts. Perhaps those who stood and shouted were making some unconscious connection with ancient ancestors for whom violence was about fighting for life itself.
Undoubtedly, the Internet would provide an explanation of how “beef” has become the normal usage, perhaps there is also somewhere an explanation of the fascination with fights, beef, or whatever else ferocious scraps might be called.