Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Meals We Eat

The Meals We Eat

If the foods we eat have fascinating etymological tales to tell, shouldn’t the labels we give our meals be similarly intriguing?

The noun breakfast showed up in English in the 1400s & is a simple combination of the verb break & the noun fast. It hasn’t changed in meaning over the years, & for centuries has referred to a time when we break our nightlong fast. Breakfast happens to be a tosspot word.

We all know that brunch is a combination of breakfast & lunch, but who knew it was a portmanteau word created by British college students in 1896? Words combined to make a new word are called portmanteau words, a term stolen from a piece of luggage designed with two compartments (apparently one for each of the two contributing words).

Lunch started out as luncheon (originally spelled lunching) in the 1650s, meaning a light repast between mealtimes. Though nobody knows for sure, lunch may have come from:

1.    An earlier English term meaning thick piece or hunk
2.    A northern English word meaning hunk of bread or cheese
3.    A Middle English term, nonechenche which translates to noon drink

The word snack entered English in the 1400s meaning the snap of a dog’s jaw. By the 1550s snack meant a snappish remark. The 1680s brought a new meaning for snack: a share, portion or part. By 1807 snack morphed to mean a mere bite or morsel to eat.

In the 1300s the English borrowed disner from the French in the form of the word dinner. Interestingly, dinner originally meant the first meal of the day, then moved later to mean the noonday meal, & eventually came to timelessly mean the main meal of the day. The lower & middle classes ate this meal near midday, but over time the upper classes commandeered the term dinner to refer to the meal they enjoyed after sunset.

Back in the 1200s the English also borrowed soper (now spelled supper) from the French. This word referred to the last meal of the day, a meal that was seen as lighter & less formal than the midday dinner. Interestingly, the verb sup developed independently on two separate trunks of the etymological tree. From French soper came the verb sup, to eat the evening meal. At the same time the Old High German word sufen, to drink alcohol, grew to become the German supen & Dutch zuipen, meaning to tipple. This term ended up in Old English meaning to take into the mouth with the lips, giving us parallel growth of two completely different roots to end up with surprisingly similar meaning.

In the 1600s dessert showed up in English from the French word desservire, meaning clear the table. So when we indulge in dessert we’re etymologically celebrating the clearing of the previous course from the table.

I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in which we all ate dinner. We shared the understanding that people who mistakenly called dinner supper had their snoots in the air. Followers, how did you look upon these terms in your youth?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik


  1. Fascinating, as usual. Where I grew up in central Maine, people always had dinner at noon and supper in the evening. I was amazed when I moved to Lincolnshire in the UK and found they too dined at noon and supped in the evening. But in Yorkshire, farther north, what they have in the evening is "tea", which I suppose is sipped or "supped." But I suppose some of that supping was of stronger drink than tea. Amazing stuff Mr. Monger!

  2. I knew brunch was a portmanteau word, but I had not been aware that it was coined by British students!
    The etymology of snack was probably my favorite of this list.

    In my house, we usually eat dinner. If my mother wishes to emphasize that the meal is catch-as-catch-can--leftovers, cereal, general scrounging--she will call it supper. If we have company, fine china, and a sit-down meal, we refer to it as a formal dinner...same thing, slightly qualified, as the regular evening meal.

  3. Ahoy Anne & Rachel6,
    Thanks for checking in & weighing in re: supper/dinner. I find perceived class differences in language as fascinating as real ones.

  4. I find it interesting the word "supper" sounded snooty to you. My mother, who grew up poor and poorly educated in San Antonio in the 1920s-30s, called the evening meal supper. I assumed it was a Texan, Southern, old-fashioned, and/or perhaps a lower-class term. Her Southern Baptist family participated in "All Day Singing and Dinner on the Ground." I now wonder if that dinner was actually lunch. Then again, Mom liked to serve big Sunday suppers around 4:00, so maybe that's the hour they picnicked on the ground.

  5. I just found my answer. "It has been a tradition among the Pentecostals for years," says the Rev. Dale Hutchinson, pastor of Big Island Pentecostal Church in Deville, Louisiana. Count in the Baptists, the Methodists, the Primitive Baptists, the Church of God, and almost all other fundamentalist, evangelical denominations as well. Both Anglos and African Americans hold dinners on the ground. In earlier times, churches with scattered, rural congregations held dinner on the ground every Sunday. Country people might travel some distance, perhaps 18 or 20 miles, to attend 'meeting.' By the time church let out, there was no time to get home for lunch. Singing groups entertained the eating congregation until the early evening services. This tradition, which grew from the necessities forced by horse-and-buggy transportation, has become a symbol of the family atmosphere of rural country churches." Found this at "Folklife in Louisiana."
    It makes sense, too, that the tradition apparently started in Louisiana. My ancestors were early settlers of East Texas, just across the border from LA.