Yeomen of the Guard in the royal household, appointed, in 1485, by Henry VII., to form part of the royal train in banquets and other grand occasions. The old theory was that the word means “an attendant on the royal buffets,” Anglicised into buffeters or buffeteers, and corrupted into Beefeaters; but Professor Skeat says no such word as buffeter has yet been found in any book; nor does buffetier exist in French.
A plausible reply to this objection is that the word may have got corrupted almost ab initio in those unlettered days; and the earliest quotation of “Beefeater,” already adduced, is above 150 years from the institution of the force, and even then the allusions are either satirical or humorous: as “Begone, yee greedy beefe-eaters, y' are best” (Histriomastix, iii. 1; A.D. 1610); “Bows, or Beefeaters, as the French were pleased to terme us” (1628); “You beef-eater, you saucy cur” (1671). Not one of the quotations fixes the word on the
Yeomen of the Guard, and that the English have been called Beefeaters none will deny. Even if the allusion given above could be certainly affixed to Yeomen of the Guard it would only prove that 150 or 160 years after their establishment in the palace they were so called (corruptly, humorously or otherwise).
(2) We have a host of similar corruptions in our language, as Andrew Macs (q.v.), Billy-ruffians (see Bellerophon), Bull and Mouth (q.v.), Charles's Wain (q.v.), Bag-o'-Nails, Goat and Compasses,
Sparrow-grass (asparagus), ancient (ensign), lutestring (lustring, from lustre), Dog-cheap (god-kepe, i.e. a good bargain), and many more of the same sort.
(3) There can be no doubt that the “beefeaters” waited at the royal table, for in 1602 we read that “the dishes were brought in by the halberdiers [beefeaters], who are fine, big fellows” (quoted in Notes and Queries, February 4th, 1893, p. 86).
(4) If beef was a general food in the sixteenth century, which is extremely doubtful, it would be supremely ridiculous to call a few yeomen “eaters of beef,” unless beef was restricted to them. In the present Argentine Republic, beef dried, called “jerked beef,” is the common diet, and it would be foolish indeed to restrict the phrase “eaters of jerked beef” to some halfscore waiters at the President's table.
(5) That the word buffeteer or buffetier is not to be found (in the English sense) in any- French author, does not prove that it was never used in Anglo-French. We have scores of perverted French words, with English meanings, unrecognised by the French; for example: encore, double entendre, surtout (a frock coat), epergne, and so on.
(6) Historic etymology has its value, but, like all other general rules, it requires to be narrowly watched, or it may not unfrequently over-ride the truth. Historically, Rome comes from Romulus, Scotland from Scota or Scotia, Britain from Brutus. All sorts of rubbishy etymology belong to the historic craze.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894