high tea

My reasons for not posting in more than a week form a list that is even more boring than long. My need to say that, in the egotistical hope that someone cares, is even more pathetic than it is banal.

But one of those reasons is that my parents are visiting, having come to meet their newest granddaughter, Grover. And visits from Americans are always good for a fresh supply of linguistic gaffes and confusions. My dear mom, for example, demonstrated a widespread American misapprehension of a British term when she informed me that she went to high tea at my nephew's school on Valentine's Day. Knowing that she was referring to something more like a tea party with tea or other drinks and some sort of baked good, and being the obnoxious daughter that I am, I replied, "No, you didn't."

The website What's Cooking America works hard to disabuse my fellow Americans of that misunderstanding:
Most people [i.e. Americans] refer to afternoon tea as high tea because they think it sounds regal and lofty, when in all actuality, high tea, or "meat tea" is dinner. High tea, in Britain, at any rate, tends to be on the heavier side. American hotels and tea rooms, on the other hand, continue to misunderstand and offer tidbits of fancy pastries and cakes on delicate china when they offer a "high tea."
What the hotels (and my nephew's school) are offering is actually low tea, more commonly (in my experience) referred to as afternoon tea. A particular subcategory of afternoon tea is the cream tea, which involves tea and scones with clotted cream and (almost always strawberry) jam. (We've booked a cream tea after Grover's naming ceremony on Sunday, which seems a little unfair, as she's not yet on solid foods--or even tea, for that matter.) My mother keeps asking if people 'still' have afternoon tea, and I reply "people will take a tea break, like a coffee break', and she'll say that she means do they have cucumber sandwiches and scones and so forth. (My mother seems to be jealous of any culture that fits an extra meal into the day.) Better Half and I have to explain that eating cucumber sandwiches in the afternoon is not something that the masses ever did much.

Back to high tea: I've never heard a British person use the term. They say things like I have to get home and make the children's tea, by which they mean their evening meal. In my experience, tea, when referring to a meal, is used by my friends mostly to refer to simple meals they make for their children or themselves in the early evening; a dinner party, for example, would not be referred to as tea.

Now, we could get into the different uses of other meal terms like dinner and lunch and
supper in the two countries--except that there's so much variation in meal names within each country that anything I could say from my own experience would be only a small bit of the picture. In the US, the use of meal names varies mostly by region (and, I'd suspect, by age). (See these maps for some info.) In the UK, there is a heavy social class element involved--so that Nancy Mitford, in classifying some turns of phrase as U ('upper class') or non-U, claims that calling the midday meal dinner is non-U, while calling it luncheon is U.

In fact, reader Paula wrote in the summer asking for coverage of an aspect of the meal-name problem:
Here in my area of North Carolina(US) we still use "dinner" to describe the noon meal. When I visited Australia and New Zealand, they also used "dinner", which made me feel right at home. The poor little Northern US children that traveled with us were quite confused since they thought "dinner" was the evening meal, lol.
How about it, how common is the word "dinner" now when "lunch" seems to be used more and more.
...and I've been avoiding the question ever since. So feel free to weigh in on the matter in the comments!


  1. You don't have to make excuses for not writing; many of us eagerly await your posts but we also understand the demands of your other life!

    As an Australian, I have to make a comment about the issue of meal terms. Just to clarify, we (and the New Zealanders) use 'dinner' to refer to the evening meal, not the midday meal (that's still 'lunch').

    Depending on where they grew up (ie in rural areas of some states and territories), some Australians may also be heard (somewhat perversely) to refer to the evening meal as 'tea'. I just got back from New Zealand and didn't hear anyone use it over there, but it's quite possible since we share many of our linguistic idiosyncracies with our Anglophone neighbour.

    All this serves to add another level of confusion to the word 'tea'.

  2. I am not surprised that you have never heard a British person use the phrase 'high tea'. It's a phrase I haven't heard, still less used, for twenty years or more. That's probably because it's about that long since I have had a high tea in the sense I was brought up with. And even then it was a phrase more of my grandparents' generation than of my parents'.

    High tea is not 'children's tea' and it is not 'tea'.

    It is not children's tea because it not just, or even particularly, for children. It is not tea, because it is more substantial than that - though it has to be more substantial in some quite specific ways if it is to become high tea rather than, say, supper.

    So, there has to be bread, perhaps as sandwiches, perhaps as bread and butter. There will be ham or cheese, possibly hard boiled eggs. There will be salad, but nothing complicated or fancy - a bowl of sliced cucumber, some tomatoes, some lettuce (probably Webbs, maybe a Cos). There will be sweet things too - jam to go on bread and butter, then cake. All that will be on the table from the outset - there are no courses in a high tea, though there is an order. To drink, there will be tea.

    All of this will happen at tea time, which is earlier than supper time, but probably later than the time for afternoon tea.

    And the whole thing has vanished without trace.

  3. In my experience "high tea" is always exceptional, not an everyday meal. (By contrast "tea" used to describe an evening meal is just a difference of nomenclature - usually in the U.K. class-based thing - and does not imply anything about the food is consumed.) H.T. is more like the meal Marek describes (tho' his description of the food strikes me as too specific). It would be served for a particular reason, e.g. after a winter hike across the hills, arriving home at dusk, when something more substantial than afternoon tea (i.e. bread, jam, cake) would be required, but the early hour rules out dinner/supper (having had H.T. one might eat a light supper late in the evening, but no large evening meal).

    It bears the same relationship between A.T. and dinner that brunch does to breakfast and lunch - combining elements of both, and as with brunch (and as Marek says) most things will be on the table all at once.

    Welsh "farmhouse tea" is a similar sort of meal.

  4. My vague understanding, mainly from novels (Patrick O'Brian, Georgette Heyer, etc.) is that everybody originally dined in the middle of day. Gradually the fashionable classes began to dine later and later, and dinner crept from noon to three o'clock to five to seven. It became necessary therefore to have something to eat between breakfast and dinner, which was known as nuncheon -> luncheon -> lunch. This could be all wrong, of course.

    In Ireland both rural dwellers and the urban working classes traditionally had dinner (or "the dinner") at midday. The urban middle classes had lunch. I find I switch between both meanings of dinner now depending on context. Tea is an evening meal, usually cold meats or perhaps a fry, with bread rather than potatoes.

  5. Brought up on a Council Estate in Hertfordshire, and later in a privately owned house in Kent (my father "bettered himself")in the 50's and 60's, we always called the midday meal "dinner", and the evening meal "tea". My parents came form two different classes; Daddy from mining stock in Durham, Mummy from the upper middle classes in N London (Butcher shop owners who's children went to private, fee-paying, schools).
    Nowadays, I still refer to these meals by these titles in my mind, but when calling my husband to his evening meal I call out "Dinner", and the midday meal gets called "Lunch!" My husband comes from lowly farming stock, his father couldn't even write and his mother was "in service" (a maid from the age of 12 then a school cleaner and field worker), and my background is as above.

  6. My understanding of this is pretty much in line with eimear's. Until (I think) sometime in the nineteenth century, it was simple and uncontroversial: “dinner” was the main cooked meal of the day, taken anytime between 11 am and 9 pm or so, depending on what suited your lifestyle. If you had your dinner early, around midday, you’d have a light meal later in the evening, and that would be “supper”. If you had your dinner late, you'd keep yourself going with a light “lunch” around noon.

    When you had dinner depended to a large extent on what you did for a living. Generalising wildly (there are exceptions everywhere, which is part of the reason things are still so mixed up), the working man in a factory would get a break around noon, and since he lived nearby, would go home for a cooked dinner. Mr middle class, who worked in an office in the city, but lived in the suburbs, didn’t have that option, and so had lunch at that time. The middle classes and upper classes, too, would be more likely to be entertaining in the evening, too, so they had another reason for preferring dinner late.

    Afternoon “tea” was originally an occasion for the ladies of the upper and middle classes (who of course did not work) to socialise, and was, to begin with, just a cup of tea (and perhaps some bread and butter or a biscuit). Over time the term came to be used for a wide range of events in the mid- to late afternoon, up to quite large and elaborate sit-down meals.

    What seems to have happened is that people have tended to fix the name of their meals based on their timing, rather than what they consist of: for some, a midday meal is dinner, even if they’re only having a sandwich; while for others it’s lunch, even if it's a cooked three course meal. Likewise, for some people the main meal of the day is “tea” because they’re used to having it in the late afternoon/early evening.

    Naturally, there’s a whole layer of snobbery/status-consciousness, too, with the upper/middle class “lunch” tending to replace the more working-class “dinner”; and of course people’s life-styles have altered markedly in the last half-century – some have changed what they call their meals in response, and some haven’t.

  7. Here in the office in Amsterdam, one of the native English speakers posted a note in the kitchen to remind the slobs to not leave their leftover food piled by the sink all afternoon. I can't remember the wording but it did manage to use both 'dinner' and 'lunch' to refer to the midday meal.

  8. When I was growing up, it was breakfast, lunch and dinner. We called it dinner most often, but supper was used interchangeably. But breakfast and lunch were always breakfast and lunch.
    I don't think that American's really have a comparative thing for "tea". I think we would just call eating someting between major meals...well..."eating something"

    Here is a question that I have often had, how does English Tea compare with a Latin "Siesta"? I know that this might not quite be the right place, but it is worth a shot...

    Oh and,
    @ lilymarlene...Mummy. To my American ears, that is truly a British phrase. Or at the very least very very upper class. And I would venture to say that it is associated mainly with children, or spoiled adults.
    "Oh Mummy, I shan't ever speak to you again if I don't have a pony!"
    (Please note...not an implication of you, just another differnece)

  9. Those dialect survey maps are interesting. Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN (same metropolitan area) has hits for every possible response. It's not that big a population, and until recently the population was pretty stable.

    (I suspect that one of the "other" responses included the use of "noon lunch", which is a term I've not heard elsewhere, but which is pretty common in the Red River Valley.)

  10. I was brought up on a Welsh farm in the 60s, so Dad was always there to have his meals with us.

    Our meals were breakfast, or brecwast round about 8 a.m. just before going to school. Usually a bowl of cereal for me.
    Dinner, or cinio, at noon, a substantial cooked meal.
    Tea, or te at 3 p.m., just a cup of tea, some sandwiches, and maybe some scones or cake. On schooldays this would be delayed for us kids until we got home about 4 p.m., which would tide us over until...
    Supper, swper, usually just before 6 p.m., another substantial meal eaten while watching the evening BBC news which started at 5.40 or 5.45 in those days.
    And we'd have another cup of tea and some biscuits before heading off to bed about 9.30 p.m. Strangely, my memories of my mother is that she was cooking quite a lot of the time, and I can't say I'm terribly surprised that we put weight on...

  11. @Bill - Mummy is the standard British name for a mother, at least for small children, as we grow it tends to get shortened to mum, regardless of the class of the family.

    However, I still refer to my son's mother (he is now 16) as 'Mummy' occasionally when I am talking with him. Very occasionally he will call her Mummy, rather than Mum, as well.

  12. I thought that might be the case, but I believe it will always have a similar "feel" to it to an American ear.

    We are very similar though, it is really only the change in one vowel...from Mummy to Mommy and from Mum to Mom.

    I, and many others will shorten it even further to just "Ma" which is pronounced very differently depending on the area you are in. In the south it would be "Maw" but in the Northeast we use a much flatter sound like in the Bostonian's famous "Car". (I think flatter is the right term, I am not really a lynguist by any stretch.)

    "Mother" is still used, though not as much as Mom.

  13. In my Irish house:
    -dinner is the main meal of the day: at lunchtime on Sunday, and in the evening on weekdays
    -lunch is the meal at lunchtime, if it's not dinner (ie on weekdays and Saturdays)
    -tea is the meal in the evening, if it's not dinner (ie at weekends)
    -note that we had no dinner on Saturdays; mother's day off.

    In my experience arranging to go out for an evening meal with friends in Dublin, it's never called "dinner" (or "tea"); just "food" or "something to eat".

  14. From the perspective of a native New Yorker who spent his summers in south east Georgia,(in the U.S.)the three daily meals were breakfast,lunch and dinner in the north, and breakfast,dinner and supper in the south. Additionally, in the north, supper was considered a fourth meal, held later than dinner, i.e 9pm rather than 6pm for dinner.

  15. I grew up in south Florida though my family is all from the western Plains. Among all of them, breakfast and lunch were the morning and noon meals, and I seem to recall dinner and supper being used almost interchangeably for the evening meal--with one exception. When it was a holiday meal and we ate earlier than usual, say 3pm instead of 6pm, it would almost certainly have been called dinner rather than supper.

    My husband's family is in New Jersey. They all seem to use supper more consistently than dinner.

    These days I live in the mid-Atlantic (VA). Breakfast and lunch are no different. I still hear a lot of interchangeable dinners and suppers here, but among the elderly crowd, there's an almost snappish insistence that the correct term is supper. I don't recall noticing that irritation over the terms in other areas.

    Tea? Unless you're visiting one of the popular tea rooms here, it's not a meal. It's a drink. And here in the South, it is served iced, with (gag) loads of sugar--not hot, and absolutely not with cream/milk.

  16. I grew up in rural Alabama with blue-collar parents who both grew up on farms. We called the three meals breakfast, lunch, and supper. Dinner was used, basically, for a more formal or elaborate meal, replacing either lunch or supper. E.g. the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals are always "dinner" regardless of when they're served. Sunday lunch tended to be a "dinner," since it was usually larger and fancier than weekday meals.

    I've spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia and Seattle, and I now conform to northern custom and use dinner for the evening meal. I'll still call a midday holiday meal "dinner," though.

  17. Just to expand on the first comment by Rebecca - I can assure her that there still are rural Australians who refer to the midday meal as dinner. Indeed, I did, as a boy. And one morning just a couple of weeks ago, we were promised a delivery of hay "sometime after dinner". I was briefly nonplussed until I twigged to the driver's meaning.

  18. In the rural US sixty years ago it was breakfast, dinner and supper. Then we were bussed off to school in town where they served "lunch" at midday. ("School lunches" have been political for as long as I can remember.) Many of us who learned "lunch" at school went on to college and or the military and never got back to the rural settings. Don't have any idea what happened to breakfast dinner and supper.

  19. Oh, as a fifty-something Brit I remember that I had 'school dinners' during term time, and lunch at home in the holidays - evening meal was tea. Dinner was a splendid 3-course meal eaten by grown-ups in the evening, or a large roast meal for the family in the middle of Sunday. In terms of food and presentation I agree with Marek and the Welsh Jacobite.

    Preparing High Tea is almost as time-consuming as it would be to cook a hot meal - the special appeal of a good High Tea is the variety of the spread, especially if home-made. However it looks a little unsophisticated nowadays, when magazines are full of recipes for 'quick family meals', all of which have a name.

    By the way, I still call my parents Mummy and Daddy, and I hate it when my own children (and husband) refer to me as 'Mum' - so 'common'!

  20. I'm a native Californian. I grew up with breakfast, lunch and dinner/supper used interchangably for the evening meal, except Thanksgiving and Christmas main meals were always dinners regardless of the time of day they were served.
    I first encountered High Tea in Edinburgh in 1965. There and then it was more substantial than Tea, but less than dinner, something like bacon, eggs, and chips.

  21. Can anyone draw any conclusions from those maps? It looks like each one has pretty much the same distribution, it's just that some are overall more dense or sparse than others. The only exception is the "I don't use the term dinner" map, which shows that everyone uses the term "dinner" on the west coast.

  22. I remember hearing about a conference in the UK where the delegates were told, somewhat vaguely, to arrive "in time for dinner". If I remember the story correctly, those from the south of England arrived early evening while those from the north arrived at midday and endured a boring and hungry afternoon waiting for everyone else.
    However, the north/south divide is hardly an accurate guide to nomenclature - I'm a southerner myself, but I still find myself occasionally thinking of the midday meal as "dinner", even if, as a light meal, it is more accurately a lunch.

    1. In Denmark, some people will ask you to come to their house for lunch, coffee, or dinner, and then expect you to understand that they mean a _very specific_ hour - I think lunch = noon, coffee = 3 pm, and dinner = 6 pm, but I'm not sure about that. This is by no means universal, though - I'm a native Dane and have lived here all my life, but was well into my 40'es before I understood what was going on. Until then, it caused lots of confusion and misunderstanding: I'd understand "lunch" and "dinner" as _approximate_ times - lunch = around midday, and dinner = late afternoon/early evening - and thus end up arriving either too early or too late, and to be invited for coffee to me meant only that I could expect to be served coffee and cake, but not an actual meal, and would tell me nothing about the time.

  23. my parents are both Irish, so i learned 2 versions of English as child. (US and the Irish/UK varieties)

    Breakfast was the meal that broke your fast (from previous night)--an important distinction for Sunday morning and church

    Lunch or Luncheon was a light midday meal

    Dinner was evening meal

    Supper was the main meal of the day.

    Most days, supper was dinner... but not on Sunday.. On Sunday's we always had Supper early afternoon, and a light dinner at 8 pm or so.

    When you eat your main meal (your supper) depends on many different factors.

    A working class person might not have the opportunity to have Dinner at mid-day.--and would have their supper at dinner time.

    Country folks, (my in-laws) frequently had a mid day supper, not lunch, and a light dinner in evening..

    Brunch was something that wasn't invented (or perhaps just learned about till i was a teen)

    when we visited ireland, we had tea (as our evening meal) this was for us kids, our supper, but for my grandparents, dinner!

  24. In my experience, many Brits still use the term High Tea although many confuse the ceremonial time in Ritz with an occasion when real china cups may be used to serve tea with cinnamon thins and nothing more. So even amongst the Brits there seems little consensus.

    The use of 'tea' for the evening meal to me is a distinctly non-U usage. The rest seem to call it 'supper', and the afternoon meal is 'lunch'. I have heard some American friends married to British people calling their afternoon meals 'dinners' but I think in more than one case, they started using the term to appear more 'fitting in' with their mostly non-U husbands (now I am seriously hoping none of them is reading this!) and they continue to say 'lunch' and 'supper' in front of Americans or 'foreign' folk such as me.

  25. Shefaly - I would be interested to know what you background is.

    For me, as an English BrE speaker, that seemed a fairly strange analysis - mixing modern slang with some quite old fashioned social analysis.

  26. Back when I was a kid here in North Carolina, "Tea" for my family and friends was an occasion. It was a mid-afternoon event where you pulled out the silver service, best table cloth, and napkins. Of course all the ladies wore their Sunday best-hats, gloves, etc. The food served was usually finger sandwiches, and dainty cookies(biscuits). I just remember how elegant all my Mother's friends looked and I was not to "touch anything!" Otherwise tea is iced with sugar.

  27. Johnb: Not sure how to address this question, but I shall try.

    I have just completed a PhD in the social sciences in Cambridge, where I was a mature student. This may explain the "old fashioned analysis" bit.

    However if I expressed myself here as I normally do whilst making an argument, I guess many would think what some of my friends say to my face: "Now, now, don't sound like a World Service newsreader!". This may explain the "slang" bit.

    I do not think I speak a "pure" version of the English language any more. I have studied/ worked in 3 continents and that does strange things to one's sense of what is and what is not "slang".

    Thanks. :-)

  28. Personally - I prefer newsreader style. Slang always gets in the way an invariably doesn't come across as meaning what it is intended to.

    To me U implies a very upper class / Aristocratic background - with the way you are using it - I suspect you don't mean that. Even the upper middle classes (Businessmen and non-aristocratic millionaires) are Non-U.

    However, I suspect that most of us don't don't speak an unadulterated native language anymore - and one of the things we keep finding out on this blog is that it is practically impossible to do so.

    Almost certainly the cultural background that one grew up in will impinge on the way you see and use words. My assumption from your use of the word 'Brit' is that you are a 'Yank' - and I suspect that you are trying to say that you are living in England - although there is (I believe)a Cambridge in the US that has a reasonable university.

    It is that type of information, that puts your comments in any sort of perspective :)

  29. RE: "fush suppers"

    Yes, some NZers do verge on pronouncing "fish" as "fush", but it's almost a swing between "fush" and a very quick "fash".

    Pronouncing it this way is fairly uncommon these days (at least in the North Island; I can't comment on the south). If it is used, it's usually either a joke (contrasting with the stereotypical Australian "feesh") or a sign of a fairly lazy, uneducated vocabulary. :)

    A NZer would have to be quite close to their UK roots to say "fish supper". The usual term is "fish & chips", which idiomatically includes not only fish and chips (french fries), but hotdogs (corndogs), battered shellfish, various fritters, and even burgers.

  30. I have a book which is a compilation of World War II leaflets about food and rationing. There is one leaflet with the heading "High Teas and Suppers". From this I gathered that high tea is the evening meal, interchangeable with supper. At least in wartime Britain.

  31. I, too, grew up equating 'dinner' with the biggest and most formal meal of the day (as long as it wasn't brunch, but that's another blog entry from last September).

    When 'dinner' and 'supper' occur at the same time, the former refers more to the time ("don't answer the phone during dinner") and the latter refers to the food ("we had spaghetti for supper").

    My background is Midwestern and Northeastern U.S.

  32. There is a north/south divide when it comes to meal nomenclature in England.

    In the North, dinner occurs in the middle if the day, tea occurs late afternoon and supper consists of a slice of cake or cheese and crackers in front of the fire just before bed.

    In the south: lunch is the midday meal; dinner is the afternoon meal and supper is dinner for very very posh people.

  33. Hey- just found this great blog. No one (I think) has pointed out the use of the term "dinner" in the UK for the school midday meal -- thus the "dinnerladies" that serve it. I had a good laugh when I first moved to the UK and heard my neighbour say to her cat: "Ready for your tea, darlin'?". I thought she was going to give the cat a cup of tea.

  34. I have never heard the term 'meat tea', although I guess it may be used in other part of Britain than where I come from. I grew up in a working class household in London. The evening meal was called tea but I don't think we ever called our lunchtime meal dinner. Then again, in the weekdays I had lunch at school, which was always referred to as 'school dinner'. These days I never use the word tea except for the drink.

  35. For me the names for meals are very much time based. First meal of the day = Breakfast, between breakfast and lunchtime comes elevenses or brunch or stand easy (my father was in the navy) depending who am I talking to. After lunchtime comes tea time between 3 and 5. As a child I had tea because my mother fed me not long after I go home from school. Tea could be just tea, high tea, afternoon tea or Sunday tea. Each having different rules as to what the content should be. Despite what some claim about the breakdown of families eating together at mealtimes being a modern phenomenon my experience of meal times was that children and adults only shared meals other than breakfast at the weekend, and I grew in up the 60s/70s. Adults then get to eat dinner in the evening. After dinner comes supper some time after 9 and before bedtime. Supper being a light meal or snack, usually fruit, or a small savoury e.g. cheese on toast or cheese and biscuits. So on a good day you could have 6 meals a day.

  36. I (AmE) was just on Qantas, and a flight attendant asked if I wanted "some morning tea". Since I didn't want tea, I said no. It turns out he was offering an apple tart (which I also happened not to want).

    No one else seemed to be confused by this. Does "morning tea" clearly mean food in non-AmE?

  37. I googled 'morning tea' and got all NZ and Australia sites, so it seems to be from that region.

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  39. Yet another Aussie here, but one who was born to English parents.

    My family referred to the evening meal as "dinner" or "supper". "Afternoon tea" was just "tea" and held at about 3.30/4pm and involved a pot of tea and cake. I was told off for saying dinner for the midday meal, and tea for the evening meal.

    All this made me very confused at school as my Australian peers referred to it all very differently. Going on school camp offered "supper" which was a light snack before going to bed, which I believe is the original meaning of the word?

    Morning tea was also called "recess" at school, for the mid morning break before lunch. Sometimes, recess or morning tea was referred to "little lunch" which is quite sweet.

    However upon my arrival in the UK(3 years now) I feel quite at home!

    On a side note, first time commenter - a former student of yours has referred me to your blog which I'm really enjoying, and has prompted me to write a post on my own about Aussie/UK words and their differences.

  40. It took me too long to grasp the fact that I couldn't ask for tea in my in-laws' house without saying "a cup of" in front of it. They'd assume I wanted them to get out ham, salad...(and there was NOTHING to drink with that "tea".)
    In the end, the word I avoid is the mealy-mouthed word "meal" which the English are always saying "shall we go out for a..." "shall we send out for an Indian...". It seems the English are afraid of how they might be classified by any choice. I call it lunch or dinner or supper [WHEN there is soup] and clarify the time if necessary.
    My American daughter called me Mom. My Catalan-born Anglo-American daughter called me Mummy until she was mocked by her school friends who were reminded of ads for Disney-produced English-teaching videos where charming children bounced on a sofa chanting "Mummy Mummy Mummy I love you". Then she called me by my name.
    Now the two girls (21 & 37) are often with us in France. They happily call me Maman.

  41. Coming late to the party here, but my guess is that 'high tea' is confined to those brits who use 'tea' to mean the drink and/or the mid-afternoon snack, when they want to talk about a light evening meal. We were southern English children with a Scottish Nanny who sometimes served us a 'high tea' at around six: usually something savoury plus scotch pancakes (or drop scones) - a huge treat, and very much something for children, although adults could join in if they wanted (and usually did). She probably used high tea to avoid confusion...

  42. Having moved from London to Manchester, I can agree that there's a strong north-south divide in the UK. In the south you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the north you're far more likely to have breakfast, dinner, and tea.

    I'm freelance and my husband's retired, so our mealtimes are irregular to say the least. We tend to use the following terms. (But we don't eat all of them in one day!)
    Breakfast. First meal of the day, eaten within an hour or so of waking. Around here usually called brekkie(s).
    Elevenses. A very light snack, such as coffee and biscuits, between breakfast and lunch. Often "elevensies".
    Brunch. Around here this usually means you left breakfast so late that you might as well make it big and combine it with lunch.
    Lunch. Anything eaten at midday, from a substantial hot meal right down to coffee and biscuits, in which case it's virtually the same as...
    Tea. A light snack in the afternoon.
    Linner or Dunch. We sometimes have a single substantial meal that combines lunch and dinner, but there's no English word for it. We never call it tea.
    Dinner. The evening meal. Usually the main meal of the day. Sometimes referred to as "din-dins".
    Supper. A snack in the late evening.

    Strange that you can have din-dins but never sup-sups. Or elevensies, and even lunchies, but not teasies.

  43. As a New Zealander... I think I [i]once[/i] met a family who referred to the noon meal as "dinner", somewhere in the depths of the South Island. "Lunch" appears to be much more common.

  44. I know I'm going off topic by mentioning all this Russian stuff, but anyway, until recently there was no such thing as lunch. People would sometimes have first and second breakfast. To this day, in the US, when I pack lunch with me, my non-assimilated relatives call it breakfast (these days I pack breakfast with me too for an extra 10 minutes of sleep). The substantial meal was always dinner and was almost always early, between 12 and 3 pm. We had a separate supper right before bed, something that was considered unhealthy even back then. Many people didn't have supper. Now, the same people who call my lunch breakfast call my 7:30 dinner supper.

    It's funny that I have two breakfasts and a supper as my three meals according to some people. (I do drink tea or milk immediately before bedtime, but don't accompany it with any type of food).

  45. I grew up in the UK and have always called my mid meal dinner and afternoon meal tea.. Since moving to the states I try and call mid meal lunch and afternoon meal dinner.. Growing up we always had dinner at noon and was always a hot meal and tea was always sandwiches or salad, with puddings for dessert. I have always referred to hot meals as dinner...

  46. I'm middle-class Northern British.

    For me, dinner is a meal that could be eaten at any time from about noon to well past 10pm, but it's a main (usually cooked) meal. I'd see it as rather working class to say "I had two dinners yesterday" but I know what it means (that both the midday meal and the evening meal were full, cooked meals).

    Breakfast is always the first meal of the day with one exception - if I have a big fry-up late in the day (like noon) and do not then eat until an evening dinner, then the fry-up is brunch. Brunch strongly implies an intention to eat only two meals that day.

    Lunch is a light meal taken in the middle of the day - in the "lunch hour" at work, for example. Usually, it would be a sandwich, but a modest one-course cooked meal is still lunch; my colleagues have an excellent tradition of taking each of us out in turn for lunch on our birthday to the guest of honour's choice of nearby restaurant - and splitting the bill between everyone whose birthday it isn't. This is definitely lunch, even though we take a starter too; the menus are the discounted working lunch menus, not the full price ones. There is also "Sunday lunch" which is a specific meal (a roast with all the trimmings) taken in the middle of the day, and specifically on a Sunday.

    A light evening meal - usually a relatively early one - is tea; this assumes you had a large meal earlier in the day. "Cold cuts" (of meat) are the characteristic tea, but a light cooked meal is perfectly reasonable too.

    If you've had tea/evening dinner and you want a substantial snack/small meal before going to bed, then that's supper. In my personal experience, that's usually when you've had lunch, then tea, then supper - ie you never had a big meal, so you ended up having three small ones (plus breakfast). Supper is also a takeaway that you eat after a night out (ie after drinking a lot) - the classic one is a kebab.

    I don't come from an area where supper is used to mean an evening cooked meal, but I do recognise that usage as rather posher than I am.

  47. And that begs the question - what do people call the non-savoury course?  Sweet? Pudding? Dessert? Afters? And how regularly is it an integral part of the meal? Ditto: Starter?  And if and when are meals accompanied by alcohol?

  48. Pudding and other things have been covered elsewhere on the blog. Click on the food/cooking tag to see lots more...

  49. As a child in South Africa I found it hilarious when my English cousins visited and spoke of "eating tea", as did my South African grandmother. To us it sounded as wrong as "eating orange juice". Tea in South Africa tea only ever refers to the drink itself, sometimes served with biscuits etc.

    In the UK "tea" as an evening meal is not only northern, it's common in the south too but regarded as 'low class'.

    Strangely enough though, school lunch is almost always called school dinner, even by people who normally call their midday meal at home lunch.

  50. Ed

    In the UK "tea" as an evening meal is not only northern, it's common in the south too but regarded as 'low class'.

    My mother didn't use the word 'class', but I think a translation of what she thought is that high tea — and she actually did use the term — was something the working class ate, except that in Scotland it was also a regular middle class meal.

    Not that it was unacceptable — it wasn't 'common'. If unusual circumstances disrupted the family timetable and some or all of us had to eat a meal with something cooked, my mother would call it 'high tea'. She never used the term 'afternoon tea' because that was 'tea'.

    Strangely enough though, school lunch is almost always called school dinner, even by people who normally call their midday meal at home lunch.

    School dinners are prepared and served by working-class people — notably 'dinner ladies' to a wide range of children in a town or county. Although things may have changed recently, the majority of children in 'state' (AmE 'public') schools in a local authority area have been of working class families — even if particular schools held concentrations of middle-class children who ate 'lunch' at home.

    Another mid-day 'dinner' which persisted in middle-class speech is 'Christmas Dinner'. I still find it strange to see restaurants offer 'Christmas Lunch' menus.

  51. One summer vacation is the late 1960's I worked on a large construction site. The days were long (when the weather was fine, that is) and the meals breaks were numerous. Breakfast was very early — before we started work, I think. Lunch was a morning break — around the time many people have breakfast. Dinner was, of course, a mid-day break, and the final break was tea. I don't remember a supper break, but I can well believe it happened when overtime stretched on till exceptionally late.

    Whatever the break, the meals were identical (in my memory, at least) a mug of tea and either a bacon sandwich or an egg sandwich.

  52. @David Crosbie

    Stimulated by your comment, I looked up the etymology of "dinner", which is utterly fascinating. The Etymonline entry for "dine" reads:

    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."

    So etymologically, "dinner" is a kind of Romance equivalent of English "breakfast", and that was its original meaning in English, but it has gradually moved later, first to the midday meal, and now (generally) to the evening meal. We also read that the "shift from midday to evening began with the fashionable classes"

  53. vp

    The OED slightly distances itself from that etymology:

    Generally held to be < late Latin type *disjūnare , for disjejūnāre to breakfast, ...

    In this view disner contains the same elements ultimately as French déjeuner...

    More to the point, the OED still says of dinner

    The chief meal of the day, eaten originally, and still by the majority of people, about the middle of the day ..., but now, by the professional and fashionable classes, usually in the evening...

    The online edition is word-for-word the same as the 1989 Second Edition. Even then I'd say the use of lunch for the midday meal was far more widespread than the entry suggests.

    Looking up these words, I was struck by how rare the verb dine has become. OK the verbal noun dining is fit and well in dining room etc and in the (to me) recent fine dining. But when do we use dine except in set expressions such as

    dine on caviar and foie gras but not — unless intended facetiously — dine on fish fingers and chips

    dine out on (a good story)

    It sounds pretty old-fashioned to speak of dining alone. And there's another old-fashioned use dine with, which ties in with the thread on visiting.

  54. Must have missed this post first time around. In some parts of the country, one's mid-morning snack (which I grew up calling "elevenses") is called lunch - Angela Brazil, the novelist, has her characters eat their lunch, when she obviously means a mid-morning snack. They then have their dinner at midday, but I don't remember what they have in the evening.

    My husband is from a farm in Northern Ireland, and he grew up with breakfast, 10-o-clock tea, dinner, 3-o-clock tea, 6-o-clock tea and supper. Only breakfast, dinner and 6-o-clock tea were substantial meals; the others were mainly a hot drink and, usually, a biscuit or piece of cake.

    I, however, from a farm in Sussex, grew up with breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea (my evening meal when I was a child - these days just a cup of tea with no food attached), and supper. "Dinner" was more formal, usually my mother gave what she calls a "dinner party".

    It is all very, very confusing.....

  55. P.S. To whoever referred to "fush suppers" - my in-laws in Northern Ireland speak of "fush and chups", and drive "moneys", which always makes me laugh... I believe a "fish supper" is the Scottish term for fish and chips, whatever time of day you eat them.

  56. Annabel

    I believe a "fish supper" is the Scottish term for fish and chips, whatever time of day you eat them.

    That's because supper means 'and chips'. If you ask for a Mars bar supper they'll know what you mean.

  57. David,

    in that sense the Scottish "supper" is similar to the MacDonalds "meal" meaning that there are (fries/chips) included, although a "meal" also includes a drink.

  58. This what-do-you-call-your-meals? topic is one that seems to have been around ever since the net started (and, in other discussions, even well before THAT), so I'm surprised to see that I haven't contributed to this thread earlier. (If I have, and simply missed it, apologies in advance for any repetition.)

    Here's my take on some of the terms mentioned above. My background is British (South Warwickshire) Anglo-Irish working-class, grew up to become "middle-class" professional, though -- like many of such provenance -- I always feel uncomfortable about accepting the middle-class label:


    The least controversial meal name: it's simply the first meal of the day (providing you don't get up so late that to take breakfast within hailing-distance of a promised miiday meal would be pigging it).


    Strikes me as an Americanism, even though Wikipedia tells me that it "originated in England in the late 1800s" [as late as

    1895, according to the OED] -- mainly because I chiefly associate it with American catering establishments. Does anyone ever

    have "brunch" (as opposed to a very late breakfast) at home? In a British context it's not a million miles from the commercially offered "all-day-breakfast" which is normally a rather more substantial meal than the everyday breakfast which most people would prepare for themselves at home.


    A mid-morning snack taken (in my consciousness) by people of a higher and more leisurely social class than any I've ever belonged to. To me it suggests china teacups, crooked little fingers, and insubstantial biscuits.

    Now, as a schoolchild (at least up till the age of 11, after which I went to the "posh" grammar school -- i.e., for American readers, selective secondary school), I WAS provided with a mid-morning snack (two or three biscuits, perhaps, or a jam sandwich) to take with me to school, but this we all called ...lunch! (After many years of thinking that I must have been suffering from False Memory Syndrome, one or two others, at least, have corroborated this usage.)


    As outlined above, in my childhood this never meant the main midday meal. In fact it took me very many years to even get used to the idea that other people called their main meal at this time "lunch". "Sunday lunch" still sounds wrong to me. Catering establishments may offer what they call "Sunday lunch", but at home it's Sunday dinner (eaten, in line with the generally

    slower pace of that day, at about 2 p.m.). "Christmas lunch" sounds even more absurd: "lunch" will never lose its connotations of insubstantialness for me!


    Simply, the posh word for "lunch" (i.e. midday dinner), Can't recall anyone ever SAYING this word, though you'd see it

    printed on middle-and-upper-class menus.

    DINNER (I)

    The main midday meal when I was grwoing up; but see also DINNER (II) below.


    The class-neutral word. You'd never actually say the likes of "Perhaps we could have a midday meal together" but the term is used in writing (e.g. "The children receive a nourishing midday meal").

    [End of Part I}

  59. Kevinhttp://clwbffilmiaupontardawe.weebly.com/28 April, 2014 17:44

    [Part Two]


    Similar to "elevenses" in conveying the idea of a meal designed more to alleviate the boredom of the non-working classes than to provide essential nourishment. The French call it "le five o'clock", though to me four o'clock seems more like the natural time. Cucumber sandwiches followed by fancy individual cakes and all accompanied by some expensive variety of tea is what I'd expect here.


    Not a term that's ever really figured in my own usage, though I recognize it as referring to "tea" in the sense that I grew up using it (see below), as opposed to the much less substantial "afternoon tea" described above. The term has Northern- / Scottish-English connotations for me, though I'm not sure why.


    One of the two main meals of the day -- though normally lacking a "cooked" element on Sundays, given the late timing, and very substantial nature, of the earlier Sunday dinner. Even so, Sunday tea, in my childhood days, was not at all a skimpy meal: there would be cold meat (pork pie / ham / etc.) as well as a salad (which had to be eaten before you could move onto other items more appealing to a young palate), followed by a sweet course (trifle / jelly / blancmange / etc.)


    As can be implied from what I've written above, the use of "dinner" to denote an evening meal is alien to the tradition in which I grew up, even though I've come to recognize the usage now, of course -- perhaps especially under the influence of French "dîner" (though I understand that even in France "dîner" has undergone a shift over time from meaning "midday meal" to signifying "evening meal" (earlier: souper).


    Like "midday meal", a class-neutral word ("This supplement is best taken after your evening meal"): not likely to be used in any informal conversation.


    For me, supper is a light snack taken just before bedtime. However, I seem to be aware that posh people who -- because they were attending the theatre or a concert in the early evening -- couldn't have their dinner (i.e. evening meal) at home, would call a full evening meal eaten in a restaurant "supper". That may be dated, though: I can't find many modern references. "Supper", though, does appear to remain a term in middle- and upper-class usage for a fairly substantial though perhaps less formal (evening) dinner.

  60. OK, I am a Kiwi, and we have as many differences here, but this is my take:
    Breakfast is always first thing.
    Lunch is always at midday or thereabouts and tea is always in the evening, but they are similar sorts of meals.
    Dinner can be at midday or in the evening or in the middle of the afternoon at Xmas, but is always a substantial meal, the main one of the day.
    Supper is a light snack around bedtime, or, when I was a child and my father did evening overtime, when Dad got home from work. On those days we would have lunch and tea and supper, but no dinner. "No need for a heavy cooked meal when your father is away" (Scottish stepmother). Dad, on the other hand, DID require extra nourishment, hence the supper, (often cheese toasties, AmE grilled cheese") which we never got at any other time.
    Our school version of elevenses was called "playlunch", because we ate it at playtime. Scottish stepmother called it "your piece".
    When ladies came to visit in the afternoon, Mum got out the best china, made cream cakes, and fed them "afternoon tea". "Morning tea" was like play lunch, except at home and with a cuppa. It is not a "piece" unless eaten away from home as far as I can figure out.

  61. In the years that have passed since this post was first published, there has been a rise in rather grand "afternoon teas" served by hotels and posh (and not-so-posh) restaurants. You get cake stands filled with finger sandwiches, cakes, and scones with cream and jam, and a cup of tea (or coffee), plus, if you are pushing the boat out, a glass of champagne. It is an enjoyable event and you don't need supper afterwards! You just google "Afternoon tea in London" to get a very great many results!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)