Why there is confusion as to which meal is ‘Dinner’



If you walk around downtown Appalachia, USA, asking the question, “What time do you normally eat dinner?” you’re likely to get a wide assortment of answers ranging from noon to 7 p.m.

You’ll find that many people swear that “dinner time” is in the middle meal of the day, while several others will argue that “dinner” is the last meal eaten during the day – generally around one’s dining room table with his or her family.

I grew up in a home where dinner and supper were used interchangeably and they were always used to define the meal we had as a family at the end of the day; however, when I started working, I realized that the older gentleman I was partnered with always had his dinner at lunchtime…  and apparently, so did I.

In America’s eastern mountains, there are two great linguistic debates. The first, and easiest to answer is the App-ah-Lay-Sha vs. App-ah-LATCH-uh pronunciation; this one is easily solved by the way… if you say it wrong, I might just throw an “apple at cha”!

The second and far more difficult debate, however, is attempting to figure out to what meal the word “dinner” is referencing.

To get to the bottom of this debate, we must travel back in time to the 1300s to France and take a peek at the word “dinner” when it was just a baby.

Back then, the word was known as “disner” and had been borrowed from the Gallo-Romance word “desjunare” which meant “to break one’s fast”, thus, the word dinner was originally not used to describe lunch or supper, but rather “break fast”!

In the years ahead, as food became more readily available and western culture began to expand the number of meals in a day, the term “dinner” shifted to referring to the heavy main meal of the day, even if it had been preceded by a breakfast meal (or even both breakfast and lunch).

Throughout the 1700s, the main meal was generally eaten at mid-day, thus, “dinner” was often used to describe this meal; however, by the close of the century, the fashionable hour for dinner began to be incrementally postponed, to two and three in the afternoon, until at the time of the First French Empire (1804) an English traveler to Paris remarked upon the “abominable habit of dining as late as seven in the evening”.

Today, the vast majority of English-speaking cultures eat their largest meal at the close of the day, thus the term “dinner” has over the course of time come to signify this final meal, known almost universally as “supper”.

The divide between different meanings of “dinner” is not cut-and-dried based on either geography or socioeconomic class. However, the use of the term dinner for the midday meal is strongest among working-class people, especially in the English Midlands, North of England and the central belt of Scotland.

Therefore, if you or someone you know uses the term “dinner” to describe the meal eaten at midday, the chances are great that you’re a proud member of the “working class” and enjoy a stubborn Scottish heritage… both of which should be reason enough to hold your head high and enjoy your Scottish–Appalachian pride… By the way, what’s for dinner?

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  1. Sunday dinner is always right after church. Fried chicken, gravy, rolls or biscuits, mashed potatoes, green beans, slaw, devilled eggs, and if you are really lucky, banana pudding with baked meringue on top.

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