Saturday, January 23, 2010

Is it a joke that the British have dinner for lunch?

Do the British ever have breakfast? Is it true that tea is either their afternoon snack or their early dinner? And is it a joke that they have dinner for lunch? And what about the Americans all over the continental United States? Do they all take and call their meals the same way as the British?

I must admit that I didn’t know the answers to these questions myself until, coming across an old e-mail from a Filipina reader based in London almost a year ago, I felt a sudden compulsion to check them out. Thus began my quick but illuminating incursion into the English mealtime vocabulary that led to my writing the essay below.

What I found is that even if the subjects of the British Commonwealth and the nationals of other English-speaking countries have English as a common language, their words for the same familiar things could be as astonishingly different as “lift” and “elevator,” “sidewalk” and “pavement,” “chips” and “crisps,” and—surprise of surprises—“tea” and “dinner.”

I invite you to read the essay now to see what I mean.

The English mealtime vocabulary

A few days ago, while I was going over my e-mail archives for my column in The Manila Times, my eye was drawn to this postscript from a Filipina reader who had written me from London over six years ago: “Oh, also, they call lunch here ‘dinner’ and dinner, ‘tea.’” I didn’t give this remark much thought at the time, thinking that the reader—perhaps oppressed by the thick fog that often blankets London—simply had mixed up her English mealtime vocabulary. This time, though, the discordant bit of information intrigued me and I casually mentioned it to my wife Leonor.

Leonor, who grew up and had her primary and secondary education in once-British-controlled Malaysia, readily agreed that my reader had probably mixed up her terms. She said that from what she remembers, the British call dinner “supper” and reserve the term “tea” for late-afternoon refreshments consisting of tea along with sandwiches, crackers, or cookies. Of course, she said she was talking about her Malaysian experience, not that of Great Britain itself, so I decided to further clarify this vocabulary issue at least to my own satisfaction.

As I was to discover, one’s English meal vocabulary depends as much on class distinctions as on national and regional geography. If you are Philippine-based all your life, though, there should be no problem at all. In our supposedly egalitarian democratic society, the American English for mealtime has long been in vogue: “breakfast” for early morning, “lunch” for midday, and “dinner” for evening—period. But when you travel from one English-speaking country to another, you’ll be surprised to find that the language for mealtime makes nothing less than tectonic changes.

To avoid confusing ourselves, though, let’s first talk about the commonality of terms. On “breakfast,” there’s broad agreement that it refers to the first meal of the day, especially when taken in the morning. It’s also universally accepted that “dinner” refers to “the principal meal of the day”; in fact, this English word comes from the French dejeuner, which means “to dine,” although “dinner” before the Middle Ages could either be a morning or midday meal.

In England today, however, the terms for mealtime appear to be largely determined along class lines. From what I can gather, at midday the upper class takes “lunch” while the working class takes “dinner.” At about 4:30 p.m., the middle class and the upper class take “tea,” which is a light meal of tea and finely cut sandwiches. Then, by early evening, the working class takes “supper,” a meal of bread and “dripping” (fat and juices drawn from meat during cooking)—usually their very last meal for the day. At about this time, the middle class and upper class take “high tea” (a fairly substantial meal), followed at about 8 o’clock with “dinner.”

Within the United Kingdom itself, however, even this class-determined meal vocabulary changes depending on regional location. I gathered that people in northern England almost invariably refer to their midday meal as “dinner” and their evening meal as “tea”—this confirms my Filipina reader’s postscript—but those in southern England call their midday meal “lunch,” their light afternoon meal “tea,” and their evening meal “dinner.” In the English midlands, though, it appears that “dinner” is always the evening meal, and that people use the term almost interchangeably with “tea.” In Ireland, in contrast, “lunch” is the midday meal and evening meals are either “tea” for large ones and “supper” for light ones, while “dinner” is only used to refer to a formal meal.

As most of us know, of course, the English mealtime vocabulary varies very little over at the United States. “Tea” hardly figures in the language, and whether you are in New England, in the Midwest, or in Texas, it’s “lunch” for the midday meal, with “dinner” and “supper” often used interchangeably for the evening meal or the final meal of the day. (March 7, 2009)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 7, 2009, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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  1. What is this about working class taking a meal of dripping for tea? And upper class having finely cut sandwiches? Yeah maybe 100 years ago. Not today mate.

  2. I remember my Palestinian colleague asking about lunch when we're invited to a dinner party two years ago. Our newspaper photographer who happens to be a Pakistani filled TWO plates to the brim that my colleague asked him if he was not able to have lunch. I thought then she was just kidding. I didn't consider that she really mean that way.