We have breakfast in the morning followed by lunch at midday, tea in the afternoon, and dinner at night. An hour or two after dinner, we would go to the Mamak restaurant for supper. That is the order of our meals, and that is the order of meals anywhere in the world, or so I thought. I was wrong.
I learnt this one day shortly after I arrived in that oh-so-foreign country. I had settled down in a house in Morecambe where I lived with a family called the Pillings. I don’t remember the details clearly now, but it was a weekend morning, and the landlady and husband told me that they were going out. I casually asked when they think they would be back because they told me that they were expecting someone to come and they had asked that I keep an eye out for him. They told me that they would not be long, and they would be back, “around dinner time”.
Later, I was surprised when they returned just after noon. That was when I learnt that in North West England, dinner is at what we in Malaysian call lunch. What we call dinner, they call supper.
Etymologically speaking, dinner the noun comes from around 1 PM to mean the first meal of the day which is usually eaten, traditionally, between 9.am. to noon because that was the traditional meal time in medieval and modern Europe right up to the eighteenth century. . It seems that dinner is the main meal of the day. The actual time of the meal gradually shifted over time. In the 80s, in the North of the England, dinner meant some time between 1 to 2 PM. What remains is that dinner is the main meal of the day and it is eaten in the middle of the day, not near the end of it.
Dinner time was also moved due to political changes. According to the Century Dictionary (1897) dinner in France under the Old regime was between 2 to 3 pm but when the Constituent Assembly moved to Paris, they sat until 5 pm and thus dinner was postponed to 6 pm or later. Thus, we have the present dinner time, at least with the exception of England.
So what about supper? Supper comes from the old French word soper which meant ‘evening meal’ which in turn comes from the old Germanic word ‘sup’ which meant ‘to eat’ thus the meal became ‘soper’. It was later came to mean the last meal of the day with the influence from the ‘Last meal of Christ’: an idea that came in around the 1300s.
What is the difference between dinner and supper then? Apparently, dinner was reserved for the meal that you eat with peers and colleagues or for other more formal reasons. I think perhaps eating in formal company does not make for good eating, so they remain hungry. So, when they got home, they got into their kain pelikat and Pagoda t-shirts, they had another, more informal, meal: supper.
One more thing, then next time you have a snack, remember this. The word snack comes from ‘a snatch or snap’ of food usually taken to give dogs, and this came into use around the 1400s. In the 1680s the meaning of share or divide into smaller portions came into better use and the word came to mean ‘a bit or morsel to eat hastily’ (1757). The snack bar came from 1923. So, the next time you have a snack, be sure to share a little with your dog. If you don’t have one, a cat will also thank you for the food.
What about lunch then? Lunch is a shortened version of luncheon which began to be used in 1786 thereabouts. Its origin is uncertain but there are older similar words from as early as 1570s.
Oxford English Dictionary tells of such words as nunceon which means light midday meal and nonmete from Old English which meant ‘noon meal’.
Webster’s say that lunch in 1817 meant ‘a large piece of food’ but that became regarded as a vulgar word by the 1820s.
People in 1868 started to have Lunch money and in 1821, they had Lunch-time is from 1840. Of course, by 1840, they called that time the lunch hour. The workers went on lunch-break from 1960s. interestingly, there was a slang that started in 1955, if you said someone has gone, “out to lunch “, you are saying that he (or she) has gone insane, or became stupid and clueless: generally, not there or not in the right mind. So, have you gone out to lunch?