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Lunch vs. dinner vs. supper — times and meanings?

I know there are copious amounts of debates on this matter but is there actually one definitive answer for the order of meals in the day?

For e.g., Breakfast, lunch, dinner or Breakfast, dinner, tea ...

Normally the opinion seems to be based on the area you are from, but does the English language have a definition for which one is actually correct?

  • 4
    There is no such thing as "the English language" (or the German language, or the Russian language...). To put it hyperbolically, the meaning of every word is based on the area you are from. If you happen to live somewhere where the word lunch means "red car", then that's what it means and using it to mean "lunch" will only get you strange looks, and no amount of appeals to authority, real or imagined, will help.
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 20, 2012 at 13:20
  • @Reg: English, certainly, which is what makes it so interesting. But there is an argument that if you use a German word with a meaning not in Grimm, you are speaking either incorrect German or a patois of your own. (Speaking neither correct nor incorrect forms, I don't propose to defend the view, merely to say that it exists.) Dec 20, 2012 at 22:50

2 Answers 2


There really is no definitive order for the meals of the day based on their definitions. To illustrate this, all you need to do is look at the etymology of the word dinner/dine:

late 13c., from O.Fr. disner (Mod.Fr. dîner) "to dine, eat, have a meal," originally "take the first meal of the day," from stem of Gallo-Romance *desjunare "to break one's fast," from V.L. *disjejunare, from dis- "undo" (see dis-) + L.L. jejunare "to fast," from L. jejunus "fasting, hungry."

In other words, dinner is technically breakfast. Similarly, lunch would be more like a generous snack between the two meals of a day.

Dictionary definitions are just as ambiguous with dinner defined as:

the main meal of the day, taken either around midday or in the evening.

Discounting the vagaries of Britain, if you want a common order of the meals of the day, then it would go something as follows:

  1. Breakfast
  2. Brunch
  3. Lunch
  4. Tea
  5. Dinner
  6. Supper

In Britain, if lunch is called dinner, then tea (or high tea) effectively becomes dinner followed by a late supper.

This subject is covered quite well on Wikipedia starting off with its page on meals.

  • Has "elevenses" disappeared? I was very fond of that when I was in school in England--fonder of the word even than the repast. Dec 20, 2012 at 14:16
  • What ever happened to second breakfast? :( To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, walking-stick or say money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf's hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a whole mile or more.
    – tchrist
    Dec 20, 2012 at 14:22
  • @StoneyB It's still around :) I thought that brunch (while not exactly synonymous) would cover it. Same reasoning applies for second breakfast I suppose. LotR also mentions elevenses: There were three official meals: lunch, tea, and dinner (or supper). But lunch and tea were marked chiefly by the fact that at those times all the guests were sitting down and eating together. At other times there were merely lots of people eating and drinking – continuously from elevenses until six-thirty, when the fireworks started. Dec 20, 2012 at 14:27
  • What do you call a midnight meal?
    – tchrist
    Dec 20, 2012 at 14:58

I'm just after mentioning some of the U/non-U differences noted in 1950s England at https://english.stackexchange.com/a/94930/15770 and this has an effect here too; dinner for a mid-day meal was non-U (middle class or possibly even working class) while lunch was U (upper class)*.

The distinction is not just about language, but also eating habits - dinner was pretty universally the main meal of the day, but which meal that was would depend upon occupation and region as well as class (the working class farm worker and working class factory worker have different pressures upon when they can eat).

Supper is a meal taken after dinner, so when it refers to depends upon when dinner is.

Breakfast refers not strictly to a morning meal, but to a meal taken after a period of some time without food. This is clearly talking about a morning meal in a period when one would fast throughout the whole night, but prior to electric light it and greater pressures of the clock it was not unusual to eat late in the night in a period between two sleeps, but you might have to break your fast in the evening if the activity of the day kept you away from dining.

Tea can mean any relatively light meal, but can even mean the main meal in some areas particularly among the working class (this is the usage I grew up with). Here it's a legacy of the main meal for the day being mid-day among the working class, with tea being used for the latter supper especially if they were inclined to also use supper to mean a pre-bedtime snack. Hence as dining patterns changed so that the main meal moved to the evening, it was still called tea.

This only touches on the wide degree of variation.

*Though for some words the U word would be used by the working class as well as the upper class, while the non-U was only used by the middle class.

  • With no disrespect, do please note that using tea to mean a meal rather than, well, tea, is utterly foreign to the United States and would likely be misunderstood to mean, well, tea.
    – tchrist
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:33
  • @tchrist no disrespect in the slightest. Since my main thrust was to point out that there's a lot of variation involved, you back up my argument.
    – Jon Hanna
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:42

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