My wife asked me where the verb dine was from; I didn’t know off the top of my head, so I looked it up (delaying lunch by a couple of minutes), and discovered what I had doubtless once known but long forgotten: to quote Merriam-Webster, it’s “Middle English, from Anglo-French disner, diner to eat, have a meal, from Vulgar Latin *disjejunare to break one’s fast, from Latin dis– + Late Latin jejunare to fast, from Latin jejunus fasting.” Which means it’s a semantic doublet of breakfast and an etymological doublet of French déjeuner ‘lunch.’ And the ultimate origin, Latin jejunus, of course gives us the adjective jejune, which is so multivalent and misunderstood that it’s no longer of much use. (Plus it sounds silly—I can still hear my younger brother going “Juhjoon! Juh-JOOOOON!!)


  1. Angus-Michel says

    Also, déjeuner still means ‘breakfast’ in Belgian and Canadian French. Not sure about Swiss French.

  2. marie-lucie says

    I can’t speak for general contemporary usage in France, but in my family, le déjeuner as a noun is the noon meal (typically a full meal), as opposed to le petit déjeuner which is breakfast (less of a meal than in the English tradition), but déjeuner as a verb can refer to having breakfast or lunch, depending on the time and the context of the conversation.

  3. mollymooly says

    In Paris, brunch happens between the normal times for déjeuner and dîner. And only on Sundays.

  4. I’ve heard a folk etymology that Louis XIV would awake late in the day and be served his “breakfast” (déjeuner) at lunchtime, and that his staff, who had to wake at a normal time, consequently had to refer to their own breakfast as “little breakfast” (petit déjeuner). It sounds too good to be true, but it would explain why French-speaking areas beyond France have retained the more conservative meaning of déjeuner as breakfast.

  5. marie-lucie says

    Lots of things are wrongly attributed to Louis XIV and other famous people. Actually Louis XIV was a very hard worker and got up early, attended first by a few servants and intimates (for le petit lever) and then by a large group of courtiers for whom it was an honour to present to him the shirt, stockings, etc he was going to wear that day (le grand lever). The king deliberately restricted the nobility to such ceremonial roles, preferring talented commoners for dealing with state business.
    I think that the topic of the changing meanings of le déjeuner and le dîner was discussed right here some time agoo. What seems agreed on (and accounts for both French and English changes in word usage) is that as aristocrats at the court, having nothing much to do, lengthened their evening activities (gambling, etc) into the early hours, went to sleep later and later and got up later and later, so that their déjeuner/breakfast was served around noon, while other people where having their dîner/dinner. The later meal then was served later and later too. These linguistic usages later slowly percolated into the general population. The petit déjeuner is not only served earlier than the current déjeuner but is also a much “smaller” meal in terms of food variety and quantity (unlike the breakfast of English tradition, which has remained a copious meal). In English-speaking countries, Christmas dinner, typically served in early afternoon, preserves the timing of the old dinner.

  6. marie-lucie says

    mollymooly: Like so many things going on in France now, this French brunch must be a recent adaptation of an English (?) or North American custom.

  7. The Chronique d’étymologie latine has a nice summary of Forssman’s etymologie of ieiunus:
    iēiūnus, -a, -um (iāiūnus Plaute) : « qui est à jeun, affamé » ; iēientāre « faire son premier déjeuner ». — Malgré la différence de sens, il est unanimement admis que ces deux ētermes sont apparentés l’un à l’autre, le sème commun étant celui de prise ou de non-prise de nourriture après le repas de la nuit. Selon la belle analyse de B. Forssman in Indogermanica et Italica. Festschrift H. Rix, 1993, p. 95-105, iēiūnus peut appartenir à la racine *yag – (ou *Hyag -, cf. LIV2) de skr. yájate « sacrifier », av. yazaite, gr. hazomai « éprouver une crainte religieuse ». B. F. pose en effet *yag -yūno- pour iēiūnus et *yagyent- comme base de iēientare. Il part d’un adjectif en *-yude la racine *yag – et d’un participe présent de l’ancien thème de présent *yag -ye/o- (cf. gr. azomai). Dans la pieuse nation romaine, le chef de famille faisait une offrande aux dieux (et notamment aux Lares et aux Penates) dès son lever, et donc à jeun, ce qui explique le sens de iēiūnus, tandis qu’il est probable que le reste de la maisonnée faisait une offrande en prenant son premier déjeuner, ce qui explique le sens de iēientare. Forme élargie par *-no- avec allongement du -ū – (cf. tribus : tribūnus, etc.) *yagyūnos est passé à *yayyūnos, puis *yeyyūnos (fermeture de ă en ĕ due à l’entourage des deux semi-voyelles palatales), noté comme il se doit iēiūnus. Le verbe iēientare, quant à lui, doit être le dénominatif du participe présent (ou quasi participe) dont il vient d’être question. Ainsi, la racine *yag-, attestée jusqu’ici seulement en indo-iranien et en grec, semble avoir été connue dans un troisième groupe linguistique, l’italique.

  8. Cool. I had always unconsciously assumed “jejune” was something related to youth. Maybe everyone does & that’s where that 3rd definition in Merriam-Webster got started…

  9. In English-speaking countries, Christmas dinner, typically served in early afternoon, preserves the timing of the old dinner.
    I’m sure this has been beaten to death elsewhere, but there are a few different variations of meal names in English-speaking countries. I know only what I grew up with (which has since changed to conform with ‘standard’ usage).
    The meals of the day were:
    Morning tea (or ‘smoko’)
    Dinner (midday meal)
    Afternoon tea (or ‘smoko’)
    Tea (evening meal)
    Supper (biscuits and tea as a kind of nightcap)
    At primary school, the morning break was called ‘little lunch’, as opposed to ‘big lunch’ in the middle of the day.
    I was told by someone that ‘dinner’ as the name of the midday meal was a northern English thing. At any rate, in Australia ‘breakfast, dinner, and tea’ has been superseded in my lifetime by ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner’.
    Americans and others find the Australian usage of the word ‘supper’ confusing (or weird) since that is traditionally the main evening meal.

  10. Incidentally, ‘smoko’ (or ‘smoke-oh’) pretty clearly comes from the custom of having a cigarette during the break, but the name now has nothing to do with smoking. You can have smoko (tea and snacks) without a cigarette in sight.

  11. There are some regions of the US that use “breakfast-dinner-supper” rather than “breakfast-lunch-dinner”. I do BLD, but as best I can tell my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents (of British and Irish descent) did BSD, and I’ve heard that some Midwestern farming areas do BSD as well, although I’m hardly a Midwesterner. I remember an episode of Are You Being Served? where the pretentious Captain Peacock was saying that the midday meal should be called lunch, and the working-class Miss Brahms was calling it dinner.

  12. The current OED stuck on OED1’s weird ambivalence over English “dinner.” A discussion here: http://poetry-contingency.uwaterloo.ca/oxford-english-dinner/

  13. ‘Dinner’ meaning lunch is a working-class usage all over Britain, not just in the north, and then their main meal would have been called ‘tea’ eaten after work at fiveish as in Australia. The Norwegians traditionally eat their main meal middag then too, it’s supposed to be much healthier than waiting like us until 8pm. I’d thought smoko was confined to sheep stations, I didn’t realise everyone was doing it.

  14. mollymooly says

    The names of chicken & chips combo meals in traditional Dublin chippers are typically Snack, Dinner, and Family (in increasing size). Some have a Lunch size, which may be bigger or smaller than Snack. For fish & chips the traditional “fish supper” label is often retained. “Tea” doesn’t get a look in, though OTOH you can order a Dinner Box at noon.

  15. The AHD says that the part of the small intestine between the duodenum and the ileum, the jejunum, is from Medieval Latin and so named because in dissection it was always found empty.

  16. At primary school, the morning break was called ‘little lunch’, as opposed to ‘big lunch’ in the middle of the day.
    We used “little play” and “big play”, which on reflection sound almost pidginic.

  17. ‘Smoko’ is used anywhere where there is physical labour, including work sites and farms. Since I grew up on a farm we used ‘smoko’.

  18. Rodger C says

    In my household in the Ohio Valley of WV in the 1950s it was breakfast-lunch-dinner, but among my more country friends it was breakfast-dinner-supper, and the noon meal was the biggest. “Supper” to me was a synonym for what I called dinner. When Kentucky’s Harriette Arnow wrote The Dollmaker in the 1940s, a tiff with her New York editor started when he solemnly informed her that her usage was wrong, since “dinner” was an evening meal.

  19. marie-lucie says

    When I was teaching introductory linguistics, one assignment for sociolinguistics (adapted from one in a textbook) was to interview three or four English speakers from different areas about their meal names. The only certainty in English is “breakfast”, otherwise there is considerable variety about both the names and the timing (and kinds of food) associated with them. “Dinner” is especially variable: if you are invited to dinner by people new to you, always ask what time you should arrive. Understandably, the most variety is in names for usually small meals taken at odd hours, such as during a break in the middle of a night shift.

  20. My father (who grew up in Philadelphia) was Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner, my mother (who grew up in Detroit after coming from Germany) was Breakfast-Lunch-Supper, at least when I knew her in New Jersey. In the family we more or less sorted them out by size: if my mother made a large meal, or if my father made a meal of any size, it was dinner; if my mother made a smaller meal, supper. On holidays, the main meal was around 2 PM and was always dinner.

  21. The above passage from Chronique d’étymologie latine has this: “le sème commun étant celui de prise ou de non-prise de nourriture après le repas de la nuit”. I think “repas” here is a misprint for “repos”. There is indeed a repas de la nuit – call it dinner or what you will – but “taking or forbearing nourishment after the evening meal” would be an obscurely motivated way to refer to the breaking or continuation of fast.

  22. … to the breaking or continuation of fast many hours later.

  23. mollymooly says

    The most decadent words in English are “breakfast served all day”.

  24. I thought it was “Strip all week, drag on Tuesdays”*.
    *pub in Camberwell New Road, London, c.1975.

  25. des von bladet says

    The most decadent words in English are “breakfast served all day”.
    I had an all-day breakfast last time I was back in Blighty, but I didn’t have it for breakfast!

  26. The spam robot is waxing poetic today.
    Remoteness in the lovesickness
    what on earth
    Needing your centuries
    single down in the dumps
    with the coastline of the solitary
    along with brightness can be
    sigh along with —
    slowly and gradually diluted.

  27. dearieme says

    WhenIwasaboy our evening meal might be either High Tea or Dinner, according to my mother’s whims. HT was held earlier, you drank tea with it, and it typically contained a cooked course (or a salad in summer), followed by heaps of bakery. Dinner typically had a cooked starter (e.g. soup) and then another cooked course (or a salad in summer) and then a pudding or cheese, or once in a blue moon a savoury, but no bakery. With it you drank water or beer or (very rarely) wine, according to age and fancy. My parents might have a glass of sherry before dinner, but never before HT. The meal at about 13:00 was called lunch (though at school it was “school dinner”); supper was a couple of biscuits with a glass of milk or a cup of tea before bed. Eating between meals at home was allowed as long as it came out of the fruit bowl.

  28. dearieme says

    If you planned to have dinner, I might add, that opened space to have afternoon tea. For me that was a school holidays meal, since in term I would usually get home too late to have had afternoon tea anyway. It would occur about 16:00.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not sure what is meant by “semantic doublet” in the original post. “Breakfast” in modern English means something like “morning meal eaten soon after waking up for the day.” Thinking of it in terms of “breaking” a “fast” is imho a case of the Etymological Fallacy. I don’t think Anglophones these days normally conceptualize “not eating while asleep” as a type of “fasting,” because “fasting” has more volitional and ritualistic overtones, and when AmEng-speaking people (at least, I can’t speak directly to other modern varieties of English) do idiomatically “break” a “fast” (e.g. after sunset on Yom Kippur, or noonish on Sundays for those Christians who believe in refraining from eating until after they have taken communion) they do not generally refer to the meal then eaten as “breakfast” for the perfectly sensible reason that it is typically not breakfast time. The fact that both vowels in “breakfast” differ from those in “break” and “fast” may have helped unmoor the semantics of the word from its etymology.

  30. Bill Walderman says

    Aleksei K., that absolutely perfect last line fills me with profound sadness.

  31. Eating while you’re asleep is pretty decadent.

  32. At one of the annual tango conventions we attend, a free buffet-style breakfast is served at 3 am. Then it’s back to a few more hours of dancing before calling it a night. What makes it “breakfast” must be the fact that it’s exactly the same menu which the hotel serves for the muggles’ free breakfast later in the morning, when the tangueros are asleep.

  33. The terminology for meals in the US is such a tangle of regionalisms that the Army doesn’t even use the words “lunch”, “dinner” or “supper”. Settling on one scheme or the other would restart the Civil War. They just say “noon meal” and “evening meal” and the other usages are stigmatized as civilian-sounding.

  34. Mr. Stu, I’m thinking “repas” is correct as a reference to the religiously-derived nature of fasting in the sense of abstinence makes the morning prayers grow louder. A more contemporary interpretation would logically be “repos” given the indulgent constitution of modern dietary or non-dietary practices.

  35. Thinking of it in terms of “breaking” a “fast” is imho a case of the Etymological Fallacy.
    What once was someone’s certitude, is now your existential fallacy. Please don’t blame it on some poor etymologist long dead.

  36. marie-lucie says

    mollymooly: The most decadent words in English are “breakfast served all day”.
    Perhaps this sounds decadent to you because you think that it caters to people who sleep until the afternoon, after spending the night in “decadent”, less-than-respectable activities. But it just means that the English-type breakfast menu can be had all day. There are many people who do need to sleep most of the day, because they work night shifts (such as the midnight-to-8 shift, known in parts of Canada as the “graveyard shift”), and they are some of the candidates for having breakfast much later in the day than usual. But not all: I personally like this option for a occasional late lunch, since I never have that type of food for my own breakfast at home.
    In Northern France, some cafés and restaurants advertise “5 o’clock tea à toute heure” (‘at any time’), which my father found totally ridiculous. I did too at first, but I later understood that it referred not to the time for having a cuppa but to the British “high tea”, a full meal as described above, expected by British tourists.

  37. tetri_tolia says

    I’ve often thought that there has been exactly one time in the whole history of the English language that the word “jejune” was used well: “–Will he come? The jejune jesuit!” (Ulysses, Chapter 1)

  38. J.W. Brewer says

    The Etymological Fallacy is not, of course, a fallacy committed (at least not necessarily or predominantly) by etymologists, but by those who mistake the output of the etymologists’ scholarship for something that it isn’t, i.e. a guide to current semantic content. And my slight puzzlement as to the meaning of the original post is largely because Hat-of-All-People certainly does not strike me as particularly prone to the fallacy, even though Homer nods etc.

  39. Besides, I at least welcome the availability of egg dishes, pancakes, and the like as the evening meal. But then I am perfectly happy to eat meat and rice/potatoes/starch to break my nightly fast, too.

  40. Indeed, I just consumed a thoroughly non-North-American breakfast of ham, cheese, and a bit of no-sugar tapioca pudding (forgot the cinnamon in my haste, though).

  41. I remember fondly the steak, eggs, and grits I used to have at the (long-gone) Wilson’s in Washington Heights the morning after a late-night party.

  42. The Nighthawk restaurants in Austin were good for a steak breakfast after such parties – while I was “studying” at UT back in the day. Well, OK, there was not often enough money for real steak, but at least for sausages and hamburger steak.
    It is still rare to see Germans eating any other kind of meat for breakfast than cold cuts. I was deeply shocked in the early ’70s to be told that most people here take a “kalte Mahlzeit” in the evenings. “kalt” does not mean “cold” in this connection, but just “not warm” – bread, chesse, a bit of salad. Eating warm meals in the evening was supposed to be “bad for your health”.
    Dunno. I suppose the main change in my eating habits in Germany is that I eat less in general. This is in contrast to my habit in America of pigging out on meat, pies etc. at every possible opportunity. Of course one makes an exception for Schweinshaxe or Himmel un Ääd whenever they make a spontaneous appearance on the table.

  43. marie-lucie says

    Years ago I had the opportunity of going to Berlin with a group (this was before the Wall went up!). We had interesting experiences with the food. I particularly remember an evening meal consisting of two cold courses: first, stewed apricots; second, cooked spinach.

  44. The process by which the word “breakfast” came into being was semantically very similar to the process by which the word “dinner” came into being. I took Hat’s semantic doublet to be a short and snappy way of expressing this. Of course he was not making a statement about the current senses of the words.

  45. I took Hat’s semantic doublet to be a short and snappy way of expressing this. Of course he was not making a statement about the current senses of the words.
    Quite, and I thank you for mentioning it.

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