Monday, 12 November 2007

On having lunch/dinner

A correspondent writes as follows: 'When I came across nouns for meals in my teaching I faced a problem because I belong to a non-Western culture. Dinner is the main meal of the day, I believe, in Western societies. It is usually eaten in the evening. What about lunch? It is usually a midday meal and people often have it at work. In Eastern societies, however, the main meal is usually in the afternoon [like lunch]. So, should we call it lunch or dinner?'

Dictionaries define dinner as a main meal, and leave open the question of time of day. This is because there is a great deal of regional and social class variation. In some parts of the UK (and also in some other parts of the English-speaking world) when people take their main meal in the middle of the day (eg in some farming communities) then that is called dinner. They wouldn't use the word lunch at all; and for them an evening meal would be called tea or more likely supper.

My own usage has changed over the years. When I lived in Liverpool, as a teenager, the meal I had in the middle of the day, whether at school or at weekends, was called dinner. Today, after a few decades of eating in the south of England, I call this lunch.

The standard word for a meal taken in the middle of the day is lunch. For many people, lunch is a light meal - it might only be a sandwich. Note that there are several ways of expressing variation at lunchtime, such as light lunch, big lunch, heavy lunch, and working lunch, which don't usually apply to the word dinner. After some publisher's lunches I've attended, I don't feel like eating for a week.

As always, there are exceptions. In schools, the traditional phrase for the lunchtime meal was school dinners and the people who serve it were called dinner ladies - and still are, in many places. And on Christmas day, most people sit down to a Christmas dinner - at lunchtime.

The two elements influencing usage, therefore, are the importance of the meal and the time of day. The main factor seems to be the importance of the meal, and so dinner would seem to be the solution, in the case of my correspondent. But he needs to listen out for the way others use the terms in English in his part of the world, for that will be more important than anything.


Naruwan said...

The use of "dinner" to refer to the midday meal was very confusing for my Taiwanese wife when we visited England several years ago. Although she speaks American English very well, she was caught out by the British lunch/dinner 'confusor'. I wonder if North Americans visiting the UK also experience the same confusion as they tend to only use "dinner" for the evening meal.

Stratford Girl said...

In my school, I'm sure we spoke about 'lunchtime' but called the lunchtime staff 'dinner ladies'. Nowadays, I think the term 'dinner lady/(man?)' is seen as a little derogatory. The term that is more frequently used in the schools that I work in is ‘SMSAs’ (i.e. School Meals Supervisory Assistant).

DC said...

I guess that's part of the official terminology now. But when you say 'used'... is it part of school usage? Do kids say 'I'll ask the SMSA' and the like?

Stratford Girl said...

Not sure what the kids say. I'll have to have a listen! Definitely used in job adverts and the like though.

Essam said...

Dear Prof,

Thanks a million for the informing reply. As far as what you explained I would personally call midday main meal dinner and try to find other uses of the word 'lunch'.

However, people in my part of the world - the Arab world - are used to calling a midday meal lunch and an evening meal dinner when they speak English - in school teaching for instance.

Timothy Barton said...

Great article. I was once tempted to use "dinner" in a translation I
did where I imagined them having a big meal, and also because the
translation was to be sent to a Scottish institution, and in Scotland,
I believe, they have the same as what we say in the North of England:
breakfast, dinner and tea (and supper). In our family, the main meal
is usually the evening one, but we still say dinner and tea.

FWIW, in Catalan the midday meal is called "dinar". Speaking of which,
I'm off for mine now...

The Ridger, FCD said...

We always used "lunch" and "supper", and saved "dinner" for something special, like Christmas or Thanksgiving; this usually occurred at around 3 and replaced both of the other meals.