The language of mealtimes

Nov 15, 2012 | Language

Food for any time!There’s a great article on BBC Online this morning all about the history, and indeed need, of eating three meals a day. It’s fascinating stuff but what interested me most was the history/etymology of the words for meals. Warning: this blog post contains class references and the term ‘din dins’.

Breakfast, for example, is thought to have come from monastic life in the middle ages, when the monks would not eat until after morning Mass and would then literally break the night’s fast.

Brunch (my favourite!) is a portmanteau (another great word) of breakfast and lunch. I always think of America when I think of brunch – huge piles of pancakes, crispy bacon and maple syrup, washed down by a cheeky little late morning cocktail – but it is thought to have started life in the 19th century and described hunt breakfasts; sumptuous feasts with multiple courses.

Then comes the whole lunch/dinner/tea/supper debate and this is where it starts getting tricky and we may, as warned, move into class divisions, but let’s try not to (but take a look at this great Guardian article if you do want to).

We’ll start with the lunchtime meal – lunch. You would think. But some people have their main meal, or dinner, in the middle of the day, as was traditionally the case. We still, for example, have dinner ladies in UK schools, rather than the lunch ladies from across the pond. But let’s stick with lunch for now. Of somewhat mysterious origins, it may have come from a merging of the Anglo-Saxon word nuncheon; none (noon) and schench (drink), and perhaps the Northern English dialect word for a hunk of bread or cheese. I bet you’re thinking sandwiches now, aren’t you? But actually, the eating of sandwiches owes more to the 17th century French word souper which was a light meal eaten in the evening (our supper of course, but more of that later) and is the eating occasion in the 1750s when the Earl of Sandwich invented his famous, at the time, late-night snack. So far so complicated.

Moving quickly on to tea. Now in my house I must admit this is the evening meal. Sometimes we refer to it as dinner but mostly it’s “What’s for tea, Mum?!” the minute I walk through the door (usually quickly followed by “I have no idea”). Its origins are afternoon meal at which tea is served. So, either high tea, with cake and tiny little cucumber sandwiches or, as in my case, the working class version of dinner, presumably with a big steaming mug of PG Tips. Although tea does seem to need to be eaten quite early in the evening, and we never seem to manage that. Which brings me to:

Dinner (n.): c.1300, from O.Fr. disner (11c.), originally “breakfast,” later “lunch,” noun use of infinitive disner (see dine). Always used in English for the main meal of the day; shift from midday to evening began with the fashionable classes. Childish reduplication din-din is attested from 1905.
I got that straight from the online etymology dictionary and left it in full just because I wanted din-dins in my blog! And I couldn’t say it any better.

Lastly, to supper. To me, it has always meant a cheeky little snack before bed… But some of my friends do seem to take supper as their evening meal, which always sounds rather wonderful in an Enid Blyton, midnight feast sort of a way, but maybe just a bit too posh for the likes of me (unless of course it is a fish supper – yum yum). Over to the OED:
Supper (n.): an evening meal, typically a light or informal one.

So there you go. What do you call your meals and do you eat three a day?

image: © Marilyn Barbone | Dreamstime.com