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A butcher is a professional who slaughters animals and dresses the meat for sale. Practitioners of this traditional trade can be found all over the world, ranging from supermarket butchers, who typically deal with already slaughtered carcasses, to traditional rural butchers, who may travel to farms to butcher animals individually for their owners. Butchery is a skilled trade, requiring fairly extensive training, and it is often a family trade, with parents passing their butchery skills to their children.
This term in English dates back to around the 1300s, and it is derived from an Anglo-Norman word, boucher, which means “slaughterer of goats.” The trade of butchery is, of course, much older than the word itself. As early as 1529, people were also using the term “butcher” to refer to a particularly brutal murderer, in a reference to the skills and presumed cold-bloodedness of traditional butchers.
Humans have been slaughtering animals and processing them for food for thousands of years, and the trade of butcher is probably one of the oldest trades on Earth. A traditional butcher is known for being skilled at killing animals quickly and humanely, and for preparing their meat for sale efficiently. Some butchers also practice charcuterie, making various cured meats available to their customers.
As you might imagine, this trade is not for the faint of heart. A traditional butcher must be able to handle animals prior to slaughter, and he or she learns to dispatch them quickly; some butchers specialize in kosher or halal butchery, which requires the butcher to take specific steps to ensure that the meat with conform with religious dietary laws. Once an animal has been slaughtered, the carcass must be hung to bleed while the butcher skins it, removes the vital organs, and then “dresses” the meat, cutting it into sections for sale.
Different regions of the world have their own traditional cuts of meat, so butchers around the world dress their meats very differently. In all cases, the goal of the butcher is to isolate high quality cuts from cuts of lower value, creating minimal waste of the meat and handling it carefully to reduce the risk of contamination. These skills are typically learned in an apprenticeship with a skilled butcher.
Modern butchers can choose a number of different ways to practice their trade. In much of the West, the practice of slaughter has been separated from the art of butchery, with animals being processed in centralized slaughterhouses which also practice crude butchery, skinning the animals and removing their internal organs. In a supermarket with a butcher's counter, a butcher may receive carcasses which have already been sectioned into major cuts, and he or she chooses the best way to further divide the meat. Boutique butchers may receive half-carcasses, allowing them to select the best cuts and cure the meat as desired. Some traditional butchers both slaughter and dress meat, typically in rural areas.