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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
up vote 16 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
In the Scandinavian languages, the regular word for table is still "bord". – tripleee Aug 26 '14 at 16:30

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 was discussing this with my danish father, the danish word for table is Børd as in smorgasbørd, so we guessed it came from there. The danish word for lodgings is logi. We summised that a board game may have also been a derivative meaning table game.

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That is very interesting, thank you. I see it appears such in many Scandinavian languages. – Louis Nov 24 '14 at 18:59

All these posts are close but not quite there....it does indeed relate to a dining 'table' but the difference between a table and a board is that a board is just that: a plank, sometimes polished on one side, that rested on trestles and was used for eating meals. Tables have a surface that is fixed to legs.

In 16th-17th century England, the pay for farm labourers was set in law as "sixpence a day, BOARD and 8 pints of small ale" (weak ale about 1% alcohol - the only safe way to drink water). The board in question was their mid-day meal and was the only element of the pay that could be varied, so a landowner who wanted the best labourers would provide better food. Everyone would eat together, including the landowner who would sit at the head of the board in a chair (hence Chairman of the Board) whilst the others sat on benches. It was bad manners for men to have their hands out of sight (what could they be doing?) so hands were in view 'above board'. When not being used for meals, children could chalk or carve their games on the rough side of the board - 'board games'.

The sideboard is a similar piece of furniture at the side of the room on which other dishes would be laid before serving or to which empty serving dishes would be cleared. Bowls and dishes might also be stored here when not being used, but cutlery was never stored as each person had their own. This was usually a spoon, gifted at birth. Wealthy people had metal, the poor wood ('born with a silver spoon in his mouth').

Smaller boards were indeed used for serving food; usually square, they were hollowed out to hold the food like a bowl. They would often have a smaller hollow in the corner to hold a pinch of salt.

If you ever visit Mary Arden's Farm in Stratford on Avon (a tourist attraction that is part of the whole Shakespeare thing, Mary Arden being Will's mother) the guides, all of whom are in character dress and speech, will tell you all about 'board'. If you're lucky you'll be able to watch them have an authentic lunch.

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This is not a bad answer; but it really needs some sort of reference. You should edit the question and tell us where this information came from. – Matt Gutting Aug 26 '14 at 15:07

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

Listening to NPR's A Way with Words, it was explained that you were given a room, and in that room would often be a board hanging on the wall. Supper would be served to your room and you would sit in your bunk or bed with your meal on your board and eat. This sort of thing wasn't started by inns, but by wayward homes and farms that could take a stranger on for a little extra money. At an inn, you could eat in your room or at the tables in the common room.

But, who knows? I'm not a time traveler...Yet.

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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 '14 at 20:50

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