Word Connections: Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner

In this episode of Word Connections, we look at the words we use to identify the principal meals of the day, and how these words have changed over time. Furthermore, we examine why each of the meals was given its particular name. In addition to examining the English words, we also look elsewhere in Western Europe, to discover the fascinating stories for how these meals came to acquire their names in other languages.

For many people in the English-speaking world, there are three meals in the day, and these meals are called “breakfast”, “lunch”, and “dinner”. But there are variations on this scheme. For some people, the three meals are breakfast, lunch, and “supper”. For some people whose main meal of the day is at midday, the three meals are called breakfast, dinner, and supper.

The word “breakfast” is a compound word, consisting of “break” and “fast”. The “fast” portion of the word is not about moving quickly, but instead refers to a period of not eating. To break the fast means to resume eating. Therefore the idea behind the word “breakfast” is that a person has gone the night without eating, and the first meal of the day ends the period of fasting.

The word “breakfast” was not used until the 1400s, in the later years of Middle English. In Old English, the word for breakfast was morgenmete. It was a compound word, with morgen meaning “morning”, and mete meaning “food” or “meal”. Thus morgenmete literally meant “morning meal”. Our modern word “meat” is derived from the ancient word mete, but the meaning has narrowed to refer only to food which comes from the flesh of animals. In modern Danish, the word for breakfast is morgenmad — very similar to the Old English word. And like the Old English word, it has two parts, with morgen meaning “morning”, and mad meaning “food”.

So why did the word morgenmete get replaced with the word “breakfast”? These days it is common to hear someone say “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” But in the late Middle Ages, a belief took hold, especially among the clergy and upper classes, that eating a meal in the morning was a vice and a sign of weakness. According to this belief, it was far better to maintain the overnight fast until the midday meal. Under this way of thinking, only a weak, immoral, or low-class person would break the fast and eat in the morning. Therefore it was embarrassing for an upright person to admit having eaten in the morning. The term “breakfast” was a reflection of the low esteem given to this meal.

In German, the word for “morning” is also Morgen, but the word for “breakfast” is Frühstück. Again this is a compound word, with früh meaning “early” and stück meaning “piece” or “item”. So the word literally means an early item of food. The Norwegian word for breakfast is frokost, where the first syllable comes from the same root as the German früh, and again means early. The word kost originally meant meal or food, so frokost literally meant an early meal. In nearby Sweden, the word for breakfast is the nearly identical frukost.

The Dutch word for “breakfast” is ontbijt. The Dutch prefix “ont-” has a couple of different meanings, but one of the meanings is to begin a process. The “bijt” part of the word is from the Dutch bijten, which means “to bite” — and comes from the same Germanic origin as the English word “bite”. So the Dutch word ontbijt literally means to begin to bite — another way of suggesting the first meal of the day. The word ontbijt combined with the word koek (which means “cake”) provides the name of a popular treat in Holland — ontbijtkoek, a “breakfast cake”, a spiced brown cake or bread.

The Spanish word for breakfast is desayuno, and to eat breakfast is desayunar. The prefix “des-” in Spanish is similar to the prefix “de-” in English, which means to stop, undo, or reverse. The Spanish verb ayunar means “to fast”, to refrain from eating. So the word desayunar literally means to stop fasting — the same meaning as our word “breakfast”. The French word déjeuner has the same structure and the same Latin roots. The French word jeûner means “to fast”, and therefore déjeuner literally means to stop fasting — just like the Spanish word desayunar. However, the word déjeuner was associated with lunch — the first meal of the day for the French at that time. When the French ate a small morning snack, they called it petit-déjeuner, literally “a small breaking of the fast” — and this became the standard word for breakfast. But now the situation has gotten murky, because in modern French the word déjeuner is used to mean “breakfast” almost as often as it is used to mean “lunch”.

In European Portuguese (that is, the Portuguese spoken in Portugal), the phrase for breakfast is pequeno almoço, which literally means “little lunch”. But in Brazilian Portuguese, the phrase for breakfast is café da manhã, which literally means “morning coffee”. The Italian word for breakfast is colazione, from the Latin collatiònem, meaning “contribute”. Apparently the word comes from a tradition of communal breakfast, where each participant brought a small item to share with the group. However, the word colazione can mean either breakfast or lunch. To avoid ambiguity, sometimes the phrase prima colazione is used to indicate breakfast, where the word prima means “first”.

The English word “lunch” first made its appearance less than two centuries ago, as an abbreviated form of the word “luncheon”. But even though the word is young, it has already made its way into several other languages. The word lunch is now commonly used in Dutch, Swedish, and Polish — with the same meaning as the English word “lunch”. The French often use the word lunch instead of déjeuner, especially now that déjeuner is sometimes used to mean breakfast. The Norwegian word for lunch is lunsj, which is simply a re-spelling of the word to match the Norwegian pronunciation.

The word English word “luncheon” originally meant a hunk or thick piece of something. By the late 1500s the word “luncheon” began to be used to mean the midday meal. Considering that a typical lunch might have been a hunk of bread or a hunk of cheese, it made sense. The word “luncheon”, in turn, probably came from the Spanish word lonja, which meant a slice. Today we sometimes use the term “luncheon meat” or “lunch meat” to refer to sliced meat (especially a package of pre-sliced meat), which is quite consistent with the origin of the word.

The Portuguese word for lunch is almoço, very similar to the principal Spanish word for lunch — almuerzo. One can find two different explanations for the likely origin of these words, one pointing to the Latin admordium, and the other to the Latin morsus, but both of these Latin words are from a shared root meaning “to bite”. Spanish has several other words from the same Latin root. The verb morder means to bite, and the noun mordisco means a nibble, small bite of food, or a small snack. Another Spanish word for lunch is comida, which comes from comer, which means “to eat” — and therefore the word can mean “food” or “meal” as well as lunch.

The Latin word for lunch was prandium, and today the word survives as the Italian pranzo and the Romanian prânz, both of which still mean “lunch”. The Danish word for lunch is frokost, the same as the Norwegian word for breakfast — which could cause some confusion for travelers who visit one country and then the other. Because frokost literally means “early meal”, it came to mean lunch during a period when the midday meal was often the first meal of the day.

One of the most unambiguous words for lunch is the German word Mittagessen, which is a compound word. The German word Tag means “day”, and therefore Mittag means “midday”. The word essen means “to eat”. Thus Mittagessen means “midday eating”. (Compare this to the Danish word for breakfast — morgenmad — which means “morning food”.) The German word essen also shows up in the English word “delicatessen”, borrowed from Yiddish (a dialect of German) — literally meaning “good things to eat”. The “delicat” part of the word is similar in meaning to the English word “delicacies”.

Among English speakers, the evening meal is usually called either “supper” or “dinner”. But the word “dinner” once meant the main meal of the day, which at that time was usually the midday meal. Some people still use the word “dinner” in its earlier sense, and will call the midday meal “dinner” if it is the principal meal of the day. The word “dinner” comes from the Old French disner, which originally meant the first meal of the day — typically a large, midday meal. The word disner traces back to the Latin disjējūnāre, which meant to stop fasting. (The French word for lunch — déjeuner — comes directly from this same Latin word.) Other English words with a related origin are “dine”, “diner”, and “dinette”.

The English word “supper” comes from the Middle English super, which in turn comes from the Old French soper or souper, which means to have the evening meal. The English word “soup” comes from the same French origin, because the evening meal in those days was often soup. The modern French words for supper and dinner are quite similar to the modern English words: “supper” is souper and “dinner” is dîner.

The Latin word for supper was cena, and today both Spanish and Italian continue to use this word. The German word for supper is Abendessen, a compound word which literally means “evening eating” or “evening meal”. Other Germanic and Scandinavian languages use related words to mean supper. The Dutch word is avondmaal, the Danish word is aftensmad, and the Norwegian word is kveldsmat — all of which literally mean “evening meal”.

If we review this list of words covering the three principal meals of the day, most of them fall into four distinct patterns:

Pattern 1: Words that refer to “breaking the fast” include “breakfast”, “dinner”, desayuno (Spanish), déjeuner (French), petit déjeuner (French), and dîner (French).

Pattern 2: Words that refer to “early food” include Frühstück (German), frokost (Norwegian and Danish), frukost (Swedish), and ontbijt (Dutch).

Pattern 3: Words that refer to a specific time of day — morning, midday, or evening — include morganmete (Old English), morganmad (Danish), café da manhã (Brazilian Portuguese), Mittagessen (German), Abendessen (German), avondmaal (Dutch), aftensmad (Danish), and kveldsmat (Norwegian).

Pattern 4: Words from the Latin names of meals include prandium (Latin), pranzo (Italian), prânz (Romanian), and cena (Latin, Italian, and Spanish).

Other words that follow still other patterns include supper, sopar (French), lunch (English, Dutch, Swedish, and Polish), almuerzo (Spanish), almoço (Portuguese), comida (Spanish), and colazione (Italian).

And here we conclude our current serving of food for thought. More tasty bites will follow in the next episode of Word Connections!

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