Have you ever eaten hotdogs, spaghetti, or pizza for breakfast with ice cream for dessert? Perhaps some people may grab whatever is leftover in the fridge on their way to work just to get some food into them. But few people actually prepare the above-mentioned foods as their primary breakfast meal. They are better eaten for lunch or dinner.
But if you look at the original Middle English definition of dinner, it actually meant breakfast. The Middle English term was derived from the French word disner which came from the Latin, disiūnāre, meaning to break one’s fast.
Of course, today’s word for the first meal of the day is more to the point of breaking one’s fast, breakfast. But the old French tradition was to have the first meal of the day around nine o’clock and it was the biggest meal of the day. Later, the most important meal of the day migrated toward the evening hours. This was especially true in America and Australia. So the word, dinner, simply became defined as the main meal of the day, whatever time you ate it.
But my daughter and I got into an etymological dispute the other day regarding our family’s Easter dinner. It was held at two o’clock in the afternoon, so she insisted that it be called Easter lunch. But in keeping with the original root meaning of the word, I claimed that dinner would be the best description of the meal because it would be the most important meal of that day.
She provided encyclopedic evidence claiming that, although in England dinner is the main meal of the day, in the U.S. it is the meal taken between five and eight in the evening, thus making our two o’clock meal a lunch.
Oh yes, we have heated family debates over such important stuff as word usage and what certain things mean in a historic context. It’s not all about politics or religion in our family.
But since we’re on the subject, let’s not leave out supper. When I was a kid, supper meant the evening meal and dinner was taken at midday. That terminology is still in common usage in the South. But, in traditional southern style, the midday meal usually was the largest meal of the day, eaten between 11:00 AM and noon, before the afternoon chores. The evening meal was lighter in comparison.
In modern usage, a dinner is a more formal meal and is almost always associated with special meals such as those eaten at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, regardless of the time of day.
Supper comes from the Middle English souper, which derives from sup, meaning a small swallow or mouthful. Our word soup has the same derivation. So supper means a small meal eaten after dinner. And lunch comes from the Latin, nonshench, meaning noon. Lunch is defined as a light meal eaten at midday.
So who won our family debate about Easter dinner? Well, no one really. My daughter still insists that dinner must be eaten after five o’clock, basing her stance on a definition she found in Wikipedia. And although I agree with her that the American norm is to call the evening meal dinner and a midday meal lunch, the importance of the meal takes priority over the time it is eaten, so our Easter feast would be a dinner.
In the end, we all had a good time and were plenty full. And, unlike our traditional Christmas meal consisting of breakfast-style foods eaten at midday, we all agreed that this one was not brunch.