On Dinner – an Investigation

It was a week last Saturday night. I was happily sat with a bottle of lager and Skyfall on the telly, when I received a text. My friend was wondering if I or anyone else in “the North” called their midday meal “dinner”, because his mate from Leeds said everyone did, and it wasn’t something he’d ever heard used in his home town of Glasgow. I briefly pondered, then dashed off a reply along the lines of, “I don’t say that, and don’t think I’ve come across it (besides, Leeds isn’t the proper North)”, before returning to watching Daniel Craig being blown up.

But then the following morning I had fewer distractions. Off the top of my head, I call my meals lunch and tea, or sometimes the evening meal is dinner if it’s big, or more formal. But at school the “lunchtime supervisors” were called “dinner ladies” – and both terms were used anyway, when you either had a school dinner or a packed lunch… With such thoughts swirling through my head, I made the usually fatal mistake of asking my parents: “Of course the midday meal is dinner. That’s the traditional term in this region; you must have come across it. Hang on, I’ll get the dictionaries.”

Yes, plural dictionaries. No word goes undefined in this house!

Yes, plural dictionaries. No word goes undefined in this house!

Thus, I conceived a bit of an experiment. Who says what? Particularly, how does the usage of the word “dinner” change across the UK, and how does that differ in modern usage compared to that of previous generations? To ascertain this, I asked around 38 people a set of questions:

  • What do you call your first meal of the day? Your meal around midday? Your meal in the late afternoon/early evening? And any other meals or snack times?
  • Are these the same words that your parents use? What differences are there?
  • Do you happen to know if this is common to your home region?

I asked friends who I knew had lived in a particular region for a long time (during their formative years), and displayed an obvious “regional identity”, or had parents from the same region. Now this is by no means very scientific. The majority of people I asked were friends from school or university of around my age (between 21 and 27, in order to determine modern usage). As such, we do cover a wide geographical range but are not representative of the whole United Kingdom – for example, aside from one lone Welshwoman, I don’t have any entries from the west and south-west of the island. Similarly, I’d say we’re all of roughly similar class, and so do not provide a comprehensive examination of that aspect’s influence on language. Social class of course plays an important part in formation of one’s vocabulary, but I think it’s particularly tricky and time-consuming to define in depth. I didn’t want to start grappling with self-identified and externally-perceived class when I’m mainly looking at geographical differences, and the whole class topic can be a pain in the arse anyway. I’d say all those asked were roughly lower-middle to upper-middle.

Brits do still spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing.

Brits do still spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing. (Pic from the BBC)

I purposefully asked more people from the North-East of England, out of my own curiosity to see what was “traditional” for my region, and if/how this had changed with my generation (and perhaps to explain the difference in usage between me and my parents). Therefore, out of the 38 people questioned, 8 were classed in the younger group, from the North-East, and 10 were a group of older people I know from my local pub music session. Though some of the latter had come from different areas originally, they were all settled in the North-East for a suitably long period of time to have a wider, pan-galactic perspective. I reckon.

Does that all make sense? No? Good.

Results: I’m not entirely sure how best to present these. While I love a good pie chart, I don’t think one could accurately represent all the small differences I’ve found. Rest assured that I made an amazingly colourful spreadsheet of all my responses. Firstly, I shall look at the results of my 26 contemporaries.

Everybody calls their first meal of the day breakfast, apart from the occasional “brekkie”, or “brinner” in the case of one friend who doesn’t like the word “brunch”. (He’s special.)

Lunch is pretty unambiguous – it is only ever used to refer to the midday-ish meal. And it’s by far more common amongst my contemporaries than “dinner”: 6 out of 9 North-East people say lunch exclusively, along with 12 out of 17 cross-country contemporaries. 2 people, Huddersfield and Liverpool, note a change in their use because they used to say “dinner” when younger, but now says “lunch”. Huddersfield, like 3 others (1 North-East, 2 Northern Ireland) say lunch but also use dinner to mean a big midday meal, or a specific occasion like “Sunday dinner”. Only 4 out of my whole contemporary list of 26 say dinner for their midday (3 North-East, including Co. Durham and Morpeth, and 1 Wolverhampton).

The evening meal is an awful lot more varied. In terms of people using just one term, 11 people call that meal tea (6 North-East, 1 Wolverhampton, 1 Wirral, 1 Kent, 1 “Near Hull” and 1 Northern Ireland), and 8 call it dinner (1 North-East, 1 Glasgow, 1 Dover, 1 Oxfordshire, 1 Suffolk, 1 Essex, 1 Northern Ireland and 1 Cardiff). One lone North-Easterner calls it supper (and gets laughed at, apparently). Any other supper usage is restricted to light meals in the later evening. The remaining 6 change their usage of tea and dinner depending on the meal’s circumstances: small or cold meals are always tea in Ripon, Liverpool and Bishops Stortford, and others use dinner to mean a more formal affair.

Generally, my contemporaries say the same as their parents, and think their terms are used commonly within their regions, with occasional differences amongst generations, or friends. One chap blames his southern girlfriend for his increasing use of dinner to mean what he’d call tea. Interestingly, I noted that Wolverhampton, Huddersfield and myself all said that we changed what we used when we went to university: they originally said dinner and tea, while I said lunch and tea, but we all changed to lunch and dinner when we moved south. In my personal experience, I felt that some people simply didn’t understand me when I said tea: “But we’ve just had a cup of tea!” On a couple of occasions, though, I did wonder if people were “trying to be clever”…

Comparing my contemporaries to the older group of 10 at the pub revealed an interesting change. 1 used lunch, 2 used lunch and dinner interchangeably if a meal was big or small, while the remaining 7 called the midday meal dinner. In all bar one of the dinner cases, this was the main meal of the day. In 8 cases, the evening meal was tea, and this was a lighter meal, and only 2 called the evening meal supper (though two others changed to use supper if their meal was in the later evening). It is notable how the midday meal has changed from being the main big meal, dinner, to a lighter lunch with my generation, while tea is being replaced with dinner more often. I do feel that the term tea is still generally more in use in the northern part of the country than the south.

Here is a picture of afternoon tea. I'm not going to talk about afternoon tea. (Pic from Betty's of Harrogate)

Here is a picture of afternoon tea. I’m not going to talk about afternoon tea. (Pic from Betty’s of Harrogate)

So what does all this faffing around with vocabulary mean?

Essentially, dinner seems to be used to refer to the larger, cooked, and possibly more formal meal, regardless of time of day. Lunch and tea are lighter equivalents, although I think tea can also be used to mean a cooked, big meal. My dictionary (the Oxford Concise, 2008) agrees with this, classifying dinner as “the main meal of the day, taken either around midday or in the evening” or “a formal evening meal”. It goes on to state that tea can be both “a light afternoon meal consisting of sandwiches, cake with tea to drink” and “a cooked evening meal”.

Looking at my older dictionaries, it seems that dinner doesn’t occur at a set time until about 30 years ago, and while tea varies in being a smaller or bigger meal, it is always served with a cup of –you’ll never guess – tea. My Dad’s 1932 New English Dictionary (Odhams Press) simply calls dinner “the principal meal of the day”, and tea is “a light afternoon, or more substantial evening meal at which tea is served”. Mam’s 1946 (Revised) Pocket Oxford Dictionary agrees with dinner being “chief meal of the day…” but adds that “early dinner” is at midday, and “late dinner” in the evening. Already there is some reference to times. The same book also includes an “early tea”, which is a “preliminary breakfast” (I’ll have that!), as well as “afternoon tea”, a “light meal between lunch and dinner”, clearly suggesting dinner is in the evening. Finally, the 1984 Oxford Guide to the English Language calls dinner “chief meal of the day; formal evening meal”, and tea is an “afternoon or early evening meal at which tea is drunk”.

Why is dinner the bigger meal? I haven’t the space here to go into the origins of the word and how it acquired its meanings, but one suggestion I’ve repeatedly heard is that the main meal for the working man is traditionally in the middle of the day, after he’s been at work for hours, while the idle gentry took their main meal in the evening when they could entertain guests and indulge in feasts. And their workforce had had all day to prepare the food. This perhaps goes some small way to explain why dinner is the older term for the midday meal in the agricultural and industrial North-East and Midlands, areas where proportionately there haven’t been as many members of the gentry and nobility on the ground.

It’s tricky to draw this into a neat conclusion without opening up a whole hole of other research possibilities. I haven’t really dared do more than touch upon the influence of many sociological issues, which I’m sure a proper socio-linguist could tackle more effectively. I haven’t even included some of the funnier things I’ve found out from my friends, such as the person from Liverpool who has about 15 different possibilities for meals in a day, apparently! I’m essentially just being a curious person, and would be interested to hear any thoughts you, dear reader, have on the subject. Any local quirks you’re aware of? Disagree with my ponderings entirely? Leave a comment and continue the discussion, because that’s where this whole thing has come from.

In any event, food by any other name would taste as good.

This is my kind of pie chart. Bet you're hungry after reading this long post, aren't you? (Pic from goodtoknow.co.uk )

This is my kind of pie chart. Bet you’re hungry after reading this long post, aren’t you? (Pic from goodtoknow.co.uk )

One thought on “On Dinner – an Investigation

  1. I always find it interesting to hear how people refer to mealtimes. I’m from Essex – I think I’d tend to say dinner for the main meal of the day, whether that’s around midday or in the evening, and then use either lunch or tea to refer to the lighter meal, depending on timing. However, as dinner is almost always in the evening, I barely use tea to refer to much other than afternoon tea and cake (although that often includes coffee and a vast selection of herbal, fruit and black tea as an alternative to tea in the traditional sense).
    I think my parents tend to use ‘tea’ mostly to refer to the drink, on its own, but I’ve occasionally heard them refer to a lighter evening meal as tea.
    My friend from Lichfield agrees with my system, although my friend from Shropshire uses tea to refer to the evening meal, regardless of size.


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