Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Breakfast - "It's What's for Dinner ... Er ... Lunch."

(photo by Thomas Angermann)



Noun & verb. Late Middle English.
[From BREAK- + FAST noun.]

A noun. The first meal of the day. Occasionally, any meal. LME

B1 verb intrans. Have breakfast. M17

B2 verb trans. Provide with breakfast. M17

breakfasting verbal noun (a) the action of the verb; (b) archaic. a taking of breakfast. M18
breakfastless adjective L18

When I was growing up, I loved when my parents made breakfast for dinner - the sizzle of sausages over the evening news, a golden stack of pancakes at sunset, runny eggs yellowing my homework, and, if you come from Cincinnati, Ohio in the States like I do, crispy goetta before bed. The inversion of food and flavors served up an inversion of time, of experience. Dinner, so often mundane and routine, became surprising and special as breakfast.
But etymologically speaking, breakfast was always for dinner. Er, lunch.
Breakfast, a clean compound of break and fast, is not attested until 1463, when it took the seat of Old English's morgenmete ("morning meat," the latter half of which once referred more generally to "food"). A Germanic root, a religious fast shares its origin with its "swift" and "secure" cousin. Don't eat that cronut: Hold fast to your fast. It may be these very religious valences that influenced English's uptake of breakfast: medieval monks took food only after their morning mass.
This possibility begs the question: Not what's for breakfast, but when's breakfast? According to Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History: "Until relatively recently, lunch was the first meal of the day, but it was called dinner" (p. 5).
Dinner, and its verbal kin dine, are believed to come from a late Latin verb disjejunare, joining dis- (an undoing prefix; think disinfect) and jejunare (to fast; also the source of jejune and jejunum). In French, the word evolved from disner to dîner, both meaning "to eat" or "take a meal," originally the first meal. Not only did its form shift, but so did its sense, getting pushed back in French from "breakfast" to "lunch." 
English shaped the word into dinner some time in the early 1300s, where it has consistently referred to the main meal of the deal.
Etymologically, breakfast and dinner may be scrambled, but the common notion of a "main meal" may be the much needed salt. What might explain the shifting times of these meals and our words for them? In a word, culture - and how we earn (or have to earn) our means for the meals we eat.  An agricultural society necessitates a main meal during lunchtime, hungry from working from dawn and in need of fuel until dusk. The invention of electricity, however, makes meals possible later. And never underestimate the role of class in all of this: when the well-to-do dine can make for fast fashion.
In our modern age, many of us can eat whatever we want whenever we want. But I, for one, will still think breakfast for dinner is special.
When do you eat your main meal of the day?

And what do you call it?

Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Din-din? Supper? Tea?

Do please comment below.


Many thanks to John Kelly for his guest posting (hopefully he'll become a 'cereal contributor' ... groans). Living in Laguna Beach, California, John is an educator, working with adults with special needs. Writer and language lover, he eats etymologies for breakfast (literally and figuratively, apparently) and you can read all about it on his blog, The Mashed Radish, and why not follow the old bean on Twitter @mashedradish. Please serve John a huge Lexicolatrical welcome. Cheers. Ed


  1. Thanks for a fascinating post. It's never occurred to me before, but I suppose it's impossible not to eat breakfast, isn't it.

    1. Oh yeah! So when someone says "I normally skip breakfast," you can say: "Do you really? Do you?" with a look of condescending incredulity. Brilliant.

    2. Thanks! "Lunch" was originally a "thick slice" of something, of cheese or ham, say. Stateside, many people eat breakfast on the go, and very often in the form of "breakfast bars" or "meal replacement bars" (granola-y kind of stuff). In a way, we are still lunching for breakfast, if we consider these bars as lunches. I mean, they are thick slices of fiber and protein. So, for as much as we bemoan how far we have strayed from "the good old days," perhaps we are closer to them than we think. Just maybe the "good-old-I-had-to-work-the-fields-all-day" days.

  2. I never really understood why people in other countries always were so enthusiastic about breakfast for dinner. Do you know what we have for breakfast over here? Tea/coffee/milk and jam/nutella sandwiches. Or cereal. Nothing exciting about that when you shift it to dinnertime.

    1. It depends on what you eat for breakfast. A traditional American breakfast, if there still is such a thing, involves eggs, bacon, toast, etc. I suppose, though, that we might consider even this special in its history. Something reserved for Sunday. Now, it's Greek yogurt, meal bars, cereal, if anything. Or something purchased at a Starbucks. Go, go, go!

    2. It's funny that in Britain they call a full fry (eggs, sausages, mushrooms, bacon, beans, toast and tea) a "Full English", whereas in Ireland they call it a "Full Irish". I'm pretty sure that the English came up with it first, but the Irish are loathed to have / eat / own anything with 'English' in the name. And there are a few differences - a Full Irish doesn't tend to have beans, for example, and always has black and white pudding. Regardless of what it's called, it's all yum to me, and I'd have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner any day of the week.

  3. I love breakfast for dinner!
    Maybe it's more enjoyable then, because it's not as rushed?

    We call our main meal (the evening meal) supper, but in NZ, it was dinner.

    Since I've now read that I shouldn't say I don't usually have breakfast, I guess I'll have to refer to it as the morning meal!
    Is it just me, or does meal sound like a lot more food than a breakfast?

  4. I think the time taken for, the time attending to, breakfast for dinner definitely has something to do with it. Breakfast now seems to exist mainly as nutritional advice–something we should eating. I bet we all eat something, but way less than meal, as you point out.

    1. In my house, breakfast is breakfast, brunch comes between breakfast and lunch, lunch is lunch, dinner is dinner, and supper is a light meal before going to bed.

      I really need to eat less ...

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