A few weeks ago, a Habit Weekly reader named Kimberly emailed me with some questions that came up in her English as a Second Language class:

For your evening meal…is it supper or dinner? And why does that meal have two options when breakfast and lunch do not? … 

Is the word usage merely dependent on what part of the country you’re in? Rural vs urban? Or is it generational? Very rarely have I found someone twenty years younger than me using ‘supper’…

Someone else suggested that dinner was used for the biggest meal of the day, regardless of the time. That makes sense why we have Sunday dinner after church and never call it Sunday supper. We also never have a potluck supper or a rehearsal supper. Why is that? 

Excellent questions. After poking around at etymonline.com and elsewhere, I have some answers.

Historically, the word dinner has referred to the big meal of the day. Over the centuries, as the big meal of the day has shifted from mid-day (possibly even earlier) to early afternoon to evening, the meaning of the word dinner has shifted, though it hasn’t shifted uniformly across the English-speaking world—or, for that matter, across American English.

Luncheon, or lunch, has traditionally been a small meal between breakfast and dinner. According to etymonline, before the word lunch referred to a meal, it apparently referred to a thick piece or a hunk (possibly developing from the word lump). Think of the ploughman’s lunch, consisting of a hunk of cheese, a hunk of bread, and a pickle, and it’s not hard to see the connection.

Supper, on the other hand, has traditionally been a light meal eaten after dinner. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary explains it:

Formerly, the last of the three meals of the day (breakfast, dinner, and supper); now applied to the last substantial meal of the day when dinner is taken in the middle of the day, or to a late meal following an early evening dinner. Supper is usually a less formal meal than late dinner.

Supper, (as well as the verb to sup) is related to the word soup, and also the word sop. As opposed to dinner, which is likely to be both more formal and more substantial, supper is a meal at which you are likely to sop up soup with your bread.

As the main meal of the day has moved from mid-day to the evening, the meal names have gotten a little slippery. I used to know old-timers who typically referred to the mid-day meal as dinner. I don’t know how many of those breakfast-dinner-supper people are left.

My wife and I are breakfast-lunch-supper people. We use the word dinner, but not for our everyday evening meal. Dinner denotes a special meal. We eat Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner (perhaps at midday, perhaps later). We invite people over for dinner. We go out to dinner. But if we’re just eating our evening meal with whoever happens to be home on a given day, we call that supper.

Meanwhile, our sons and daughters, who learned English at our knee, who sat at our (supper) table and ate our salt, are breakfast-lunch-dinner people. They’ll bring home food from the Taco Bell drive-thru and call it dinner. They’ll reheat soup and sop it up with bread and call it dinner. Kids these days. I don’t even know where they learned that kind of language.

I’m kidding. I’m not especially adamant about my supper-dinner position. I say supper because it’s my custom and habit, not because I think it’s correct. Sure, Jesus hosted the Last Supper rather than the Last Dinner, but that probably doesn’t make me a better Christian than all you people who say dinner (though it can’t hurt either).

I wrote briefly about the etymology of lunch and supper, but I haven’t mentioned where the word dinner comes from. Dinner derives from the Old French disner, which meant “breakfast.” You didn’t see that coming, did you? Dinner hasn’t just migrated from midday to evening. It has migrated from morning to midday to evening. The Old French disner derives from the Vulgar Latin disieniunare. That is, dis (undo, the opposite of) + jejunare (to fast)¹—“to undo the fast,” or “to break-fast.” Get it? Dinner literally derives from breakfast. It’s an interesting little fact you can pull out next time you serve “breakfast for dinner” because you didn’t make it to the grocery store.

Speaking of interesting facts, that migration of meal-words from earlier in the day to later in the day didn’t just happen in English. In Spanish, almuerzo (“lunch”) used to mean “breakfast” (and, apparently, still does in some places). The French word for lunch, déjeuner, is essentially the same breakfast word (derived from Vulgar Latin disieniunare) that we saw in the last paragraph. And in ancient Greek, ariston means “breakfast” in Homer, but it means “lunch” in the literature of the Classical period a few hundred years later.

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