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How did board come to be associated with meals?

I am referring to this definition of board:

  • regular meals or the amount paid for them in a place of lodging (noun, Wiktionary)
  • daily meals, especially as provided for pay (noun, reference.com)
  • to furnish with meals, or with meals and lodging, especially for pay (verb, reference.com)
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Bill Bryson writes about this briefly in At Home, which is an excellent read. –  Andy F Jun 16 '11 at 8:22

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Board here means a dining table; its use is quite old.

The relevant meaning of board from the OED:

A table used for meals; now, always, a table spread for a repast. Chiefly poetical, exc. in certain phrases, esp. in association with bed to denote domestic relations [...] God's board: an old name of the Lord's table, or Communion table in a church. to begin the board: to take precedence at table.

The first citation of board as table is from around 1200 ("Mi bord is maked. Cumeð to borde."), and there are uses as late as the mid-1800s where board is used to mean "table" (without being part of the phrase "room and board"): "He looked at the banquet which was spread upon his board" (1862).

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Excellent finds. –  HaL Jun 15 '11 at 18:56

Etymology Online suggests we have board from boarding, which itself appears to have taken the meaning "food" from the Old English notion of a table sometime around the 14th century.

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Thank you for the site. –  Louis Jun 15 '11 at 18:41

I have no source for this, but I remember being told that it refers to the "sideboard" one would find in a dining room. If you're paying for "Room and Board," you're paying for lodging and for access to the sideboard, where the food is staged before you load up your plate.

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having said that, maybe it just refers to the table itself? –  Joel Salisbury Jun 15 '11 at 18:28

I have also read (cannot remember where) that in old inns they did not use dishes but instead had a long plank that had several shallow, bowl-like features carved into the plank or board upon which food (usually stews) would be served to guest. The planks or boards where removable, having been set upon trestles without fasteners, for washing at the end of the day. These boards for serving food were the cheapest thing for rural inns as breakable ceramic dishes or metal plates were too costly for all but the better, most frequented inns.

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While I find much of this plausible, you should look for a citation. People on this site tend to request something beyond your word for it. Read Kosmonaut's answer for an example. –  David M Feb 28 at 20:50

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