breakfast, lunch, & dinner

Fast Mash

  • Appearing in the 15th-century, beakfast joins break and fast, with the latter indeed related to its adjective form
  • Lunch is less clear; lunch is shortened from luncheon, which may be an extension of lunch, possibly from lump (compare bump and bunch); luncheon may have been formed on analogy to words like truncheon
  • In the 16th-century, a lunch was a “thick piece” or “hunk”; Spanish has lonja, meaning “slice”
  • Dinner is from French, dîner, earlier disner, which possibly goes back to Latin disjejunare, meaning to “break one’s fast”; Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” giving English jejune and the anatomical jejunum 

There’s a small piece of my heart that is black and rotten–black and rotten because I am a mere monoglot. I hold a quiet grudge against the United States’ prevailing language-learning paradigm of monolingualism–at least for the dominant culture. Instead, I have to pop into another language like I’m visiting a 24-hour diner, ordering up a plate of huevos rancheros at some ungodly hour. And sure, I know my way around a couple of diners, and I know how diners work as such, but there’s no Norma serving me coffee and pie as soon as I walk into the R & R.

At least, like a diner, a language is always open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Speaking of which–what about those words, breakfastlunch, and dinner?


I’m going to argue that nearly every native English speaker has had this experience. First is the recognition that breakfast is a compound of break and fastSecond is the question issued to a family member or teacher: What is this “fast” one is breaking with a bowl of Cheerios? Third is disappointment with English vowels. The way we say break and fast on their own is nothing like the way they sound in breakfast. Some of us go onto a fourth stage, though later: a fascination with the way that spelling can gives us clues about the stories words have to tell.

The OED first attests breakfast in 1463, around the time when the word booted out Old English’s equally hearty compound, morgenmete, or “morning food.” (Yes, you are looking at a precursor of meat.)

Why did the word enter into English at this time? Perhaps there was a religious influence, with the monastic habit of first eating only after morning mass. This certainly jives with the religious notes of fast, the term ultimately related to its meaning of “firm” or “steadfast,” which also gave rise to its speedier sense.   


Lunch‘s etymology is no quick lunch. It is a shortened form of luncheon, which itself may be an extension of lunch and modeled on words like truncheon and puncheon. (The -eon ending is not a meaningful suffix in its own right.)

Lunch could be from lump, in the way that hump and hunch and bump and bunch are related.

What could be lumpy about lunch? Your sandwich?

At one time, in the late 16th-century, a lunch was a thick slice or piece–a lunch of cheese, ham, or bread. Indeed, around the same time there was the Spanish lonja, which means slice” or “loin.” A hunk of bread or cheese? There is historical evidence for such a lunch, but more so at breakfast time.

Lunch could be influenced by the archaic though still regionally extant nuncheon.  It denoted a “light midday meal” or “slight refreshment” in the 14th-century, joining noon and scench (draught, cup). Johnson defines it “as much food as one’s hand can hold,” thus erroneously rooting it in clutch or clunch, a dialectical word for lump. Seems that meals-on-the-go aren’t so new a phenomenon. This is oddly reassuring. Somehow, though, I don’t think peasants took 15-minutes to shove food in their face while trolling Facebook.


Do you call it supper? Or, in some places in England, Ireland, and New Zealand, tea? Or, if it’s a little early in certain parts of the US, lunch? In my household growing up it was often din-din. Which apparently is attested in 1905. E.M. Forester gets the quotation in the OED. (Check out the Harvard Dialect Survey for the supper-dinner distinction in the US. And enjoy this discussion of the words for mealtimes in English-speaking parts of the world.)

The word dinner illustrates how culture shapes not just what we eat but when. According to Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History: “Until relatively recently, lunch was the first meal of the day, but it was called dinner” (p. 5).

Dinner is related to dine, which comes into English in the 13th-century from the Old French dîner, previously disner (eat, have a meal). This is believed to be from the late and vulgar Latin disjejunare, joining dis- (an undoing prefix) and jejunare (to fast). Also the source of French’s déjeuner and English’s archaic disjune . 

Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” “hungry,” and “thin.” English has the now obsolete jejune, signifying the same, though extended to terrestrial and spiritual barrenness or meagerness. Wiktionary traces jejunus farther back, with cognates including Sanskrit’s yájati (he worships, sacrifices) and Ancient Greek’s hágios (sacred, holy). As in, Hagia SophiaNow, jejune is childish, probably because of confusion with juvenis, Latin for “youth,” and French’s subsequent jeune. 

And the jejunum? The second part of the small intestine? The Online Etymology Dictionary explains it best: “So called because it typically is found empty during dissections, perhaps because it would tend to drain in a body laid on its back.”

I think I just lost my lunch. Er, dinner. Er, breakfast.

Supper, often used interchangeably with dinner, particularly in the United States, is from sup, “to eat the evening meal.” The verb is French in origin, super, and is related to soup. Think: bread soaked in broth, which the Online Etymology Dictionary notes was a traditional French laborer’s last meal of the day. Post-classical Latin called this suppa. English has a word for thissop. Supper, sop, soup–all related to sup, a Germanic base (sip, swallow) that may be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *seue– (to take liquid), with some generous helpings of cognates we will save for leftovers.

Breakfast for Dinner

So, what’s up with the shifting words and times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Class, custom, work, technology. Those kinds of things. You know, culture.

Here’s a taste. If you’re a farmer who wants to make most use of daylight, you’re at your work early and hungry for a big meal in the middle of the day, which would sustain you until your work is done at last light. But consider the impact of the Industrial Revolution–now you’re working long hours in a factory, thus necessitating some kind of lunch in the middle of your shift. You’d probably want some fuel before going in, too, thus making breakfast a smart idea. And electricity would make it possible to eat later in the day, which became fashionable and was emulated by the working classes.

But this is just a small slice–or should I say lunch–of the changing customs of mealtimes. The BBC has done some great work on the subject, if you’re not yet full. And if you really want to dig into it, this food timeline dishes it out.

Who eats what for when gets confusing, so let’s just smash them together. Like  brunch, which originates as English university slang. For this, the OED cites Punch magazine on August 1, 1896:

An excellent portmanteau word…indicating a combined breakfast and lunch. At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination meal, when nearer the usual hour, it is ‘brunch,’ and when nearer luncheon, it is ‘blunch.’

I, for one, will pass on that cronut for blunch. But, since hipsters killed brunch, I suppose we might have a need for blunch after all.


4 thoughts on “breakfast, lunch, & dinner

  1. Growing up in Australia in the 50s and 60s, in my working-class Catholic community at least, the evening meal was referred to as ‘tea’, and there was always a pot of tea on the table. If we had a family lunch, usually on Sunday, it was called dinner. At school during the morning break we had ‘playlunch’ at 11.00 and then lunchtime at 12.30.
    Tea has almost disappeared as a term for the evening meal, probably because we no longer tea on the table with the evening meal.
    I still use it, mostly to annoy my adult children, but I do like to keep alive older slang when I can, such as ‘ticketyboo’, ‘boofhead’, ‘dingbat’ and ‘do the messages’.


    1. Thank you for the anecdote; it tells a warm story of dialectical differences. Is the evening meal now just “dinner”? And I’m not familiar with any of the slang terms, expect for “dingbat,” and I can guess what “boofhead” means. But the other two? Do share.


      1. ‘Do the messages’ meant going down to the local shop to buy groceries, usually the type that need daily replenishment such as bread and milk. In those more innocent days parents thought nothing of sending an eight year-old alone to perform such a task. So that would have been in about 1961; in 2006 i met my later-to-be wife who was born and bred in Ireland. Imagine my surprise when she told me one day she was ‘off to do the messages’. Somehow the expression had survived in my family since their emigration from Ireland at the time of the famine.
        Tickety-boo means things are going smoothly, not an expression peculiar to Australia, it has a lovely rhythm to it.
        Boofhead does indeed mean what it sounds like – a fool. A comic strip from the 40s took on the name for its main character, it was later adapted by the Australian artist Martin Sharpe. It was enormously popular until the late 60s but the comic has long met its fate. Boofhead, however, lives on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s