I've seen cases where a noon-time meal is referred to as dinner, and the evening meal is called supper. There's also lunch around noon followed by dinner in the evening. Is there a particular difference between dinner and supper, or a circumstance where lunch becomes dinner?
Dinner is considered to be the "main" or largest meal of the day. Whether it takes place at noon or in the evening is mostly a cultural thing. For instance, many people who grew up in the American South and/or on farms traditionally ate larger meals at noontime to give them the strength to keep working through the afternoon.
Supper is more specifically a lighter evening meal. Rooted in the word "to sup", it comes, again, from farming traditions — many farming families would have a pot of soup cooking throughout the day, and would eat it in the evening — specifically, they would "sup" the soup.
Lunch is almost the midday equivalent of supper — it's also a lighter and less formal meal than Dinner, but is used specifically when referring to a midday meal. So whether you use lunch/dinner or dinner/supper is heavily determined by when your culture traditionally has its largest meal.
Much Later Edit: I happened across this article discussing the agricultural roots of midday dinner and evening supper, just to add a bit more to the conversation.
Harvard's Dialect Survey had the question, "What is the distinction between dinner and supper?" Here's the geographic distribution of their results from 10,661 American respondents:
'lunch' is the midday meal (11:30am-1:30pm), however large it is (if you're eating something around that time, and you don't eat something bigger around that time, that was your lunch). If you eat your midday meal at 3pm, that's kind of a late lunch, but it wouldn't be called anything else. That is, in AmE, 'lunch' = midday meal; a midday meal is never called dinner or supper (but see the exception below).
'dinner' or 'supper' is the evening meal 5-7pm, or if later than that, more likely to be called a 'late dinner' or 'late supper'. 'supper' is not as common a term for the evening meal in AmE (my family used to call it that when I was a kid but I have rarely heard anybody else use it). So there is not much difference between dinner and supper (in AmE), except...
A midday or rather main meal on a Sunday, is sometimes called 'Sunday dinner' (never 'Sunday lunch') and is more likely to occur later in the afternoon, anywhere from noon to 4pm (well, OK, any time from noon to 8pm). There is nothing called 'Sunday supper', (dinner has a higher register feel to it than supper).
Just to note, in AmE/culture: there is no such thing as 'tea' as a meal (it just refers to the drink, not to any kind of cultural event as in BrE/culture). The evening meal, whether dinner or supper, is usually the biggest, most special meal of the day. 'Brunch' (usually Sunday brunch) is a big late morning/midday meal (skipping breakfast) that I think culturally came about because of having the first meal on a Sunday after church service; how or if that interferes with Sunday dinner I don't know - having both in one day would be excessive. Maybe Sunday dinner is if you have to spend the time after church preparing the meal, and brunch is if you go out afterwards.
Anyway, that's only mainstream AmE/culture. Off to Easter dinner...hm...that would be a Sunday dinner on Easter I guess.
In working-class families in the North of England, dinner was traditionally the noon-time meal, and there is an afternoon or evening meal called tea. However, this is changing to some extent as people move about and some try to sound more "Southern". (English usage in the South of England, or sometimes, more particularly the South-East, is generally taken to be "correct" English, as in this case.)
My paternal grandfather grew up on a farm in the American Midwest in the 1920s and was fond of telling us about the day's schedule and the meals.
- Up before dawn to milk the cow, while food was prepared so that "breakfast" came around dawn and was typically a solid, hot meal.
- Then into the fields to work until "lunch" (a small meal usually sandwiches or cold leftovers) was delivered in the late morning (say 10:30 or 11:00).
- Back to work until mid afternoon (3:30 or 4:00 pm) when they'd return to the house for a small hot meal called "dinner".
- Milk the cows, chop wood, carry water, fix things, and other work near the house until "supper", a large hot meal was served sometime after dark.
I talked to others who lived on farms in that time, and they reported similar things. I never know anyone to hold that schedule off the farm, however.
Aside: you'll notice that the above represents the men's day, but that the women evidently had their hands just as full. In large measure with doing all that cooking. Sheesh!
In India, supper is rarely (if ever) used.
- Lunch – refers to the afternoon meal (somewhere between noon to 2 pm)
- Tea – refers to tea and snacks around evening time (4pm - 6pm)
- Dinner – refers to a meal at night (after evening, 7pm to 10 pm).
The size of the meal has little relation to the name. Though I'm sure that both Lunch and Dinner are fairly heavy. Tea is definitely only light snacks (a clear relic of the British rule).
Brunch is also increasingly used for a lazy combination of Breakfast and Lunch !
Where I live (SE-US), supper is more likely to connotate a quiet family meal, whereas dinner is just like lunch only later. Supper seems to be preferred in more rural areas.
However, 30–40 years ago it was different. People in my region called the meals "breakfast", "dinner", and "supper", in that order. Later the Northerners brought their style of saying "breakfast", "lunch", "dinner", in that order. This seems to me to explain why supper has survived in some rural areas, as those people would be in contact with the fewest number of people that speak differently.
On the farm in Arkansas in the 1930's we had dinner at noon, which was our big meal which would be chicken and dumplings or fried chicken or pork or maybe rabbit, squirrel and sometimes beef if we didn't sell it. For supper in the evening after we came in from the field about dark we would eat mostly beans and cornbread.
Born in Southwestern Ontario, Canada, raised in a traditional British household.
Breakfast – Morning meal breaking the overnight fast.
Morning Tea – tea and biscuit, sometimes a replacement for Afternoon Tea for those who dislike caffeine so close to bed time.
Lunch – Midday meal.
Afternoon Tea – 4 o'clock tea and biscuit.
Dinner – Largest, most formal end-of-day meal. Taken at a Dinner table with full cutlery and dishware.
Supper – Small informal meal taken before bed usually in a kitchen type setting.
I'm a California native with parents who moved here from Maryland/Kansas and Indiana. Both sides of my family used dinner and supper interchangeably when referring to everyday meals. However, they used Sunday dinner when referring to a meal served on Sunday, generally between 2:00 and 3:00, as was also our custom for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, with leftovers being eaten for our evening meal. As I read these posts, I couldn't help wonder why the immortal painting was named The Last Supper. I wonder what time of day that meal took place?
Well – I got into this because I have come across references on Prince Edward Island, Canada, to lunch as an evening meal. When I checked the original meaning of the word "luncheon" it seems the original Oxford defined it as a small meal between two larger meal. Specifically, in L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, Emily's family spend the day travelling. When they arrive home in the evening they are so tired that they eat a light lunch before retiring to bed (apologies for not being able to provide a direct quote at this moment). Recently I also heard my neighbour on PEI refer to "lunch" as an light evening meal.
I have noted in Canada, the use of "turkey dinner", "lobster supper" and special meal patterns not familiar to me in Australia.
Growing up in Australia, it was breakfast in the early morning, morning tea mid morning, dinner at midday (hot main meal), afternoon tea mid-afternoon, tea in the early evening (sandwiches, soup etc) and then supper before bed (cup of tea/cocoa, piece of cake). As time went on, work further away from home no longer permitted the midday "dinner". The main meal moved to early evening (6 to 8pm) but I often refer to this main cooked evening meal as "tea" which really annoys my English-born husband. My family originally came from the north of England (well, Cheshire anyway), and I noted elsewhere someone had this usage of "tea" for the North of England.
This thread shows the dangers of the English language and reminds me of Through the Looking Glass: "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.' "
Being a middle-class middle-aged southern Englishman it is quite clear what I mean: Lunch is the midday meal, tea is taken around 4/5pm and supper is the evening meal. If the evening meal is more formal and substantial it becomes dinner. Lower down the social scale the midday meal is dinner, tea is the evening meal and supper is a snack at bed time.
25 years ago my sister's son was newly enrolled at a State primary school in a relatively poor area. After a few weeks she had to call in at the administrative office. She was greeted with "Mrs Sherry, so pleased to meet you, I have been dying to meet the only parent who writes 'lunch money' on the envelope containing dinner money."
In England you need to know about someone's education, age, and class, region and politics to be reasonably sure of understanding exactly what he means :)
Not to disagree with any of the previous answers, but I am surprised that no one has mentioned that "dinner" can have two meanings. Only that of a mealtime has been addressed. Dinner can also mean the meal itself. They seem identical but consider the following sentences: "We enjoyed an elaborate turkey dinner"; "we had turkey for dinner". This distinction seems to mirror a lot of the conventions that other posters have made. With this in mind, would it be incorrect to say that one enjoyed a turkey dinner for supper? I don't know—it sure sounds weird.
The use of 'supper' in southern England is not universal. Commonly, people appropriate this word for an evening meal to make themselves sound grand.
Growing up, we would have breakfast, lunch and tea and then, as the NZ chap wrote, cocoa/hot chocolate and biscuits as supper at around 9pm. This was in London.
Nowadays, my brother refers to his evening meal as 'dinner'; I still refer to it as 'tea'. I baulk when I read about 'supper clubs'. Seems a bit socially exclusive (to the upper middle classes) to me.
I grew internationally since my parents travelled a lot. Literally, I was raised in European, American, Asian countries as well as remote islands; therefore depending on your lifestyle and culture:
- Breakfast = From 2:00am - 10:00am
- Coffee = From 4:00am - 10:00am (also a drink/beverage)
- Brunch = From 10:00am - 1:00pm (used mainly on weekends & social gatherings).
- Lunch = From 11:00am - 2:00pm
- Tea = From 2:00pm - 5:00pm (also a drink/beverage)
- Dinner = From 5:00pm - 10:00pm
- Supper = From 7:00pm - 12:00am
- Snack = (single food item between meals)
Meal terms also depending on what you had to eat & drink, as well as number of courses and who was coming or who you were speaking to social, economic & cultural setting.
Example: If mom had coffee, tea, cakes, cookies/biscuits "friends coming over at 10:00am be dressed"--she was having company over for Coffee. If it was at 3:00pm it was company for Tea.
If she had pancakes, eggs, bacon, coffee, tea, fruit punch at 10:00am, we were having Breakfast. If breakfast also had rice, potatoes, meats, sandwiches & friends—she was serving Brunch. If there were no breakfast items and only the soups, sandwiches or rice, potatoes, meats, we were having Lunch.
If the Lunch menu items was being served at 5:00pm—we were having Dinner. If it was lighter fare at 8:00pm with friends—she was having Supper.
If she handed you cookies/biscuits and milk when you came home from school—that was just a Snack.
You pretty much had to look at the date and time, look at the menu, see who was coming (or where you were going), and how you were dressed (formal, semi-formal, informal, casual).
Whew ... hope this helps.
Before I moved to Canada from UK, I thought the mid-day meal was "lunch" and the evening meal "dinner." I didn't even know that working-class people in UK called "dinner" "supper." The latter I thought of as a pre-bedtime snack. That ghastly N. American hybrid, "brunch," was a completely unheard-of word. When we had "tea," it was usually just that (perhaps a cucumber sandwich or biscuit [never a "cookie"], too), but never "high tea," which was considered working-class by some people. Canadians use both "dinner" and "supper," I think. Getting rid of these stupid class distinctions would be a help etymologically as well as socially!
I'm from New Zealand. In my experience, people in New Zealand generally use the following:
- breakfast = morning meal
- lunch = meal around noon
- tea (or dinner, less common) = evening meal
- supper = late evening snack
- morning tea = drinks and snacks mid-morning
- afternoon tea = drinks and snacks in the afternoon
Morning tea and afternoon tea are also called "smoko" – particularly in more physical jobs, such as farming or construction.
I don't think "supper" is very common, but when I stayed in a hall of residence at university in 1996, they served "supper" at around 9pm. It was usually something like some hot tea/cocoa and a muffin or piece of cake. "Supper" sounds a bit old fashioned or formal to me – if I have a snack in the evening now I wouldn't call it "supper" – just a "snack".
From Maryland: I've always understood DINNER as a large (in size and attendence), with a "main dish" (usually meat) with many accompanying sides, and possibly a formal gathering, main evening meal; and SUPPER as a small, intimate among family "single pot" meal like soup, casserole, or pot pie. Sometimes supper would come after an early dinner (like on holidays) and would be made from dinner leftovers. Most days went breakfast–lunch–dinner, on weekends breakfast–dinner–supper, or breakfast–lunch–dinner–supper, or busy days out of the house might be breakfast–lunch–late supper.
Breakfast is a very early morning hot meal to start the day.
Brunch became known as a combination late breakfast/early lunch.
Lunch was solely the noonday meal.
Tea time is the same as coffee time served with cake or cookies in the late afternoon.
Supper is the main meal for a family at end of the day.
Dinner is a more formal term for the end of the day meal which usually includes the accompanying of friends, a date, business partners, or persons other than just family and usually included cocktails prior to the meal.
Cigars and Brandy is a time mostly for men after a dinner and is surely a southern term not used much at all anymore.
When I was a child in rural Southside Virginia (in the early 1940s), "dinner" was the main meal* of the day – usually midday during the week or mid-afternoon on Sunday.
* "Breakfast" might have been "larger" nutritional calorie-wise but "dinner" was more elaborate and varied from time to time.
In my travels (around this country and much of the world) and in my old age, I have come to agree with the "Humpty Dumpty" reference above.
To add some more to the subject, in 1900 the Republican Party(US) ran the campaign slogan "Four years more and the full dinner pail.'
Clearly a successful national party would not be referring to what we now call a "lunch box" as a "dinner pail" if there was no general understanding of what "dinner" meant.
This suggests to me that "lunch" had not yet arrived as the usual term for midday meal in the US. And, the campaign could not have been aimed at the agrarian South, as the Republican Party had little traction there; the South was still solidly Democratic. Also, this could not be a slogan to attract Western farmers, as farmers usually did not take their meals with them into the fields. The "dinner bell" must have been ringing for a lot of people outside agriculture at the time.