What are they on about?

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Meal times give David Newnham something to chew over.

"When I was at school," my grandmother used to say, "I'd tell them they could call me what they liked as long it wasn't too late for dinner."

By the time I got the joke (why should anyone nickname a pupil "Too late for dinner"?) the whole thing was hopelessly out of date anyway. Dinner? She meant lunch, surely. Or was she talking about supper?

Nothing moves faster than mealtimes. Round and round they go, like viruses at a toddlers' tea party. Granny's well out of it. Even at my age, it's hard to keep up. My newest dictionary is a 1982 Concise OED. That's hardly a fashion primer for the 21st century. By '82, it seems, lunch was established as the midday meal. But it still clung to its older meaning of a light refreshment "taken between breakfast and dinner (where the latter is taken at midday)". Dinner itself was the chief meal of the day, "whether at midday or evening". So dinner used to be breakfast and lunch can still be elevenses, right? Perhaps I need something less concise than my Concise.

But my longer OED (the horter) is also older. How much older? That depends on your precise definition of "older". Suffice to say that, on my way to "dinner", I come upon "dildo", and find it described as nothing more than "a word used in ballads".

When it comes to meat and veg, however, the editor, the late Dr C T Onions, clearly has his finger on the pulse. It's the "fashionable classes", he snorts, who have taken to eating dinner in the evening.

Sadly, old Onions lets himself down by adding that, from "dinner" comes the well-known word "dinnerless". Thanks for that, Doc.

And when he comes to "lunch", he's all over the place. First he says it's a colloquial form of "luncheon". Then he tries to argue that "luncheon" is an extension of "lunch", just as "puncheon" is an extension of "punch".

Puncheon? Another word used in ballads, perhaps? Sadly I shall never know, since volume two (Marl-Z) of my venerable Shorter is on semi-permanent loan to a friend (it seemed like a good idea at the time).

We could always meet up for lunch, I suppose. But do I want to get into that minefield?

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