Breakfast, Lunch, and…?

Posted on December 15, 2012 by


I have had an almost identical conversation with four of the six co-teachers I’ve had this year.  It starts with a lesson involving meals, and my co-teacher will tell the children that breakfast is in the morning, lunch is a small meal consisting of tea or coffee and maybe a biscuit or fruit, dinner is in the evening, and supper is a smaller meal before you go to bed.  After class, so as not to make it obvious to the students that I’m correcting my co-teacher, I say, “you know, actually, lunch is a meal that you eat around 12-2pm, and you usually eat something like a sandwich, or soup.  Not just coffee or tea.”  “Really?” replies my teacher will surprise and disbelief in her voice?  “Yes, and the evening meal is called either dinner or supper depending on where you live.  They’re the same thing.  Not two separate meals.  The same meal with two different names.”  “Well,” she proceeds to instruct me, “that is not what we learned at university.”  End of conversation.

A friend of mine who is also an English teacher in Georgia, has compiled a mental list of things that at some point someone in Georgia got wrong and then taught to every Georgian learning English.  This includes a pet peeve of mine – pronouncing “didn’t” as “didnut,” “doesn’t” as “doesnut” and so on – and the idea that lunch = snack, dinner = afternoon meal, and supper = evening meal.

“That’s what I was taught at university” seems to be a pretty difficult obstacle to overcome, so how do I try to convince Georgians to hear me out in situations like this?  Well, I’d suggest taking this as an opportunity to talk about the diversity of English accents/dialects.  Most of us TLGers aren’t from England (and even some of you English folks don’t have the “correct” English accent lauded by textbooks and our teachers), so it should come as no surprise to our co-teachers and students that sometimes words are pronounced differently by different English speakers.  I’m American, (and from Nevada, specifically) so when I say “aunt” it sounds identical to “ant.”  It isn’t wrong; it’s just an accent.  Another thing that changes based on where you live is word choice.  In England they say “car park” and in America, “parking lot.”  We say “chips” for “crisps” and “fries” for “chips” (I tried and failed to explain that one today).  And we have different words for the different meals of the day.

To start out with, most English speakers have three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Breakfast is universal – even if a person doesn’t eat breakfast, he will refer to the morning meal as breakfast.

Next, let’s talk about dinner.  Dinner has historically been the word to describe the main meal of the day.  If you were a farmer in the 1800s, you would have dinner in the middle of the day, since you needed a big meal to sustain you as you worked in the fields the rest of the day.  Today, most people in America and the UK have their main, largest meal in the evening.  As people moved from working on a farm to working in a factory or office, their lifestyles changed, and they started having their main meal in the evenings after work.  Most people just transferred the word for their main meal, “dinner,” so that it now means evening meal.

According to a U.S. government survey, 86 percent of Americans who eat a meal called “dinner” eat it between 5 and 11 pm.  Only 13 percent of America’s “dinner” eaters eat it between 11 am and 5 pm.  On the other hand, virtually all “lunches” are eaten at midday, and 91% of suppers in the evening.

That all sounds a bit confusing, I’ll admit, and I don’t recommend writing a chart with percentages up on the board for your students, but the point is that for most Americans (and I believe other English speakers), we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  What’s interesting is why other people might use other words.  One of my grandmothers has always said supper instead of dinner, so I grew up thinking it was something old fashioned or one of her folksy expressions, like “davenport” instead of couch, or “crick” instead of creek.  Looking at the survey I mentioned above, it turns out that “supper” is most common in the U.S. Midwest (states in the middle, like Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska) and rural areas across the country except for the West (where I grew up).

In America, differences in word choice tend to be regional, but in Great Britain, particularly England, the differences are both regional and class based.  To borrow from this very interesting and enjoyable book (quoted here), what an individual calls the evening meal is a good indicator of his socio-economic class.  “If you call it “tea“, and eat it at around half past six, you are almost certainly working class or of working class origin…. If you call the evening meal “dinner“, and eat it at around seven o’clock, you are probably lower-middle or middle-middle class…. If you normally only use the term “dinner” for rather more formal evening meals, and call your informal, family evening meal “supper” (pronounced “suppah”), you are probably upper-middle or upper class.”

So, the next time the topic of meals comes up, why not take the opportunity to talk about the wonderful diversity our language has to offer?  Or perhaps it will be enough just to convince them that lunch does not mean a cup of tea or coffee.