John Larrysson Column: Dinner vs. Supper

There was a young man who was invited to dinner by the parents of his girlfriend. He showed up at their house at noon. They had expected him at about six in the evening. Native speakers do not always agree on the definition of the word dinner. Does dinner have the same meaning as supper or lunch?

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Actually, dinner is the main or largest meal of the day. It does not indicate a particular time. Seven hundred years ago the word was used to mean breakfast. For most of the word's history it was the meal eaten at noon. Early farmers had the largest meal during the day when it was light enough to cook. Over the last couple hundred years the upper classes started having larger evening meals, which they also called dinner. They could afford to buy enough candles to have a big evening meal. In some dialects of Northern England the word lunch used to be seen as an upper class word. With the coming of electric light this social class difference has faded.

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The word dinner is still very general and can be used in different ways. It can be a midday meal or an evening meal. It can mean a large formal event or a prepackage meal heated up in the microwave.


This Hall was unusual in being modelled on an Oxbridge college; we had formal dinner 4 nights a week, where everyone including the 120 students had to wear gowns.



Misc unpublished -- letters & articles (from the British National Corpus)



And the ultimate development in disposable packaging was the TV dinner, the domestic version of the airline dinner, bought complete with disposable tray, containers, cups and utensils, all of them made to be thrown away.



Lewis, Peter (1989) The fifties: portrait of a period. (from the British National Corpus)


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When native speakers do not agree on the use of a word, it makes learning the language more difficult. The word dinner can mean either the noon meal or the evening meal. Using the word supper instead of the word dinner will avoid some confusion. Next week I will survey the many other English names for meals.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.


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