The meals of a day are, properly, breakfast, dinner, and supper.  This is the convention given in The Description Of England by William Harrison, 1587, and the dictionaries of Samuel Johnson, 1755, and Noah Webster, 1828.  Harrison put it this way: “With us the nobility, gentry, and students do ordinarily go to dinner at eleven before noon and to supper at five, or between five and six at afternoon.  The merchants dine and sup seldom before twelve at noon and six at night, especially in London.  The husbandmen dine also at high noon, as they call it, and sup at seven or eight; but out of the term in our universities the scholars dine at ten.  As for the poorest sort, they generally dine and sup when they may, so that to talk of their order of repast it were but a needless matter.”


          Whenever Shakespeare said “dinner” he meant the noonday meal.  Also, the language of the bard was that of the King James Bible of 1611.  So, in the story of Joseph, when his brothers came down to Egypt, he told a servant to prepare a meal because “the men are to dine with me at noon.”  And in one of his sermons Jesus advised, “When you give a dinner or a supper...invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”  The Bible also told of a great feast in heaven at the end of time that is to be called “the great supper of God,” because it comes at the close of earth’s “day.”


          In the first English novel, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, 1739, “to dine” was to eat at mid-day, as the following passage illustrates: “(Some women) seemed to think it the privilege of birth and fortune, to turn day into night, and night into day, and are seldom stirring till it is time to sit down to dinner; and so all the good old family rules are reversed; for they breakfast when they should dine, dine when they should sup, and sup when they should go to bed...”


          This convention was also used by Herman Melville in 1850 in White Jacket, his documentary account of a sailor’s life.  He observed therein: “Not only is the dinner-table a criterion of rank on board a man-of-war, but also the dinner hour.  He who dines latest is the greatest man; and he who dines earliest is accounted the least.  In a flag-ship, the Commodore generally dines about four or five o’clock; the Captain about three; the Lieutenants about two; while the people (by which phrase the common seamen are specially designated in the nomenclature of the quarter-deck) sit down to their salt beef exactly at noon.  Thus it will be seen, that the two estates of sea-kings and sea-lords dine at rather patrician hours - and thereby, in the long run, impair their digestive functions - the sea-commoners, or the people, keep up their constitutions, by keeping up the good old-fashioned, Elizabethan, Franklin-warranted dinner hour of twelve.”


          Evidently, Melville was a student of Poor Richard, whose almanac included such aphorisms as these: “Pride breakfasted with Plenty, dined with Poverty, and supped with Infamy” and “Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt.”


          In my boyhood in the 1940s, I remember that “Sunday dinner” was the really big meal of the week, and that we ate the leftovers of that repast at suppertime on the same day.  And when we had “the Lord’s Supper” observance at church about noontime on Sunday, we all knew it commemorated an evening meal in Bible times.


          “Lunch” was originally just a “lump” of bread.  (Similar derivations were bunch from bump and hunch from hump.)  Also, a “snack” was a small morsel, a “snatch” or “snap” of food.  Samuel Johnson’s dictionary said that lunch was “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”  Obviously a dinner was more substantial than that.  This makes for awkward usage today when “lunch” is used to refer to a large meal at mid-day.


          The term “supper,” related to “sop,” connoted a meal of bread sopped in gravy.  It was also defined as “a pottage or broth in which there were sops or sippets (little sops).”  One recalls the Last Supper, at which Jesus gave to Judas a sop just prior to his hasty departure to carry out his betrayal.


          It is now generally agreed that the formula for healthy living is a large breakfast, a moderate meal at noon, and the smallest intake of food at night.  Melville knew this fact in his day, and it still applies.  Too bad that in modern times late sleepers break the night’s fast with just a cup of coffee and only have time to grab a bite of “lunch” at mid-day, which means over-eating at “dinner” before going to bed.

                                                                                      Richard L. Atkins








Language/Dinner vs. Supper



King James Version Bible, 1611:


Bring the men into the house and slaughter an animal and make ready, for the men are to dine with me at noon.                                                                        Genesis 43:16b

When you give a dinner or a supper, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed...                                                                                  Luke 14:12b-13

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.             Rev. 19:9b

Come, gather for the great supper of God.                                                        Rev. 19:17b


Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1755:


dinner: the chief meal; the meal eaten about the middle of the day.

supper: the last meal of the day; the evening repast.

lunch, luncheon: as much food as one’s hand can hold.


Noah Webster’s Dictionary, 1828:



dinner: 1. the meal taken about the middle of the day; or the principal meal of the day, eaten between noon and evening.  2. an entertainment; a feast.  “Behold, I have prepared my dinner.” Matthew 22

supper: the evening meal.  People who dine late, eat no supper.  The dinner of fashionable people would be the supper of rustics.

luncheon: literally a swallow; but in usage, a portion of food taken at any time, except at a regular meal.  It is not unusual to take a luncheon before dinner.  The passengers in the line-ships regularly have a lunch.  “I sliced the luncheon from the barley loaf.”

snack: 1. a share.  2. a slight, hasty repast. (from the root of snatch, also, snip.)


W. W. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, 1882:


lunch: from lump, a large piece of bread, equivalent to a gobbet or a piece.

         Similar derivations: bunch from bump, hunch from hump.

snack: from snatch, a snatch or a snap of food.

supper: from sop; a meal of bread sopped in gravy; a pottage or broth in which there are sops or sippets.  Sippet is a little sop, a piece of sopped toast.

gobbet: a mouthful or small piece, from “gob,” meaning mouth, beak, snout; also, gulp

tit-bit, tid-bit: small bite, from “titty:” small (cf. titmouse, titlark, titling: sparrow) and bite (morsel or mouthful)


The American College Dictionary, 1952:


dinner: 1. the main meal, especially as taken about noon or (now) in the evening.  2. a formal meal in honor of some person or occasion.

supper: 1. the evening meal; the last meal of the day, taken in the evening.  2. any evening repast, often one forming a social entertainment.

lunch: 1. short for luncheon, a light meal between breakfast and dinner. 2. a light meal.

brunch: a mid-morning meal that serves both as breakfast and lunch.



                                                                                        February 2, 2005

The Orlando Sentinel

Attn: Michael Murphy, “My Word” column

633 N. Orange Avenue

Orlando, FL 32801-1349


Dear Mr. Murphy:


          I hope the attached essay is suitable for use in the “My Word” column.  I enjoy the study of etymology and am also concerned about incorrect word usage in everyday speech.


          I hope this article will be of interest to readers of the Sentinel.


                                                                             Very truly yours,




                                                                             Richard L. Atkins

                                                                             1981 Blue Ridge Road

                                                                             Winter Park, FL 32789

                                                                                 (407) 628-2443


                                                                                             June 10, 2005

John D. Pierce, Editor

Baptists Today

P. O. Box 6318

Macon, GA 31208-6318


Dear John:


          Here is a nostalgia article that I think the readers of Baptists Today may appreciate.


          Thanks for a fine publication.


                                                                             Yours sincerely,




                                                                             Richard L. Atkins

                                                                             1981 Blue Ridge Road

                                                                             Winter Park, FL 32789

                                                                                 (407) 628-2443