A class of our own

Posted by on November 07, 2011

What do you call the meal you eat in the evening? Is it tea, supper, or dinner? And in the middle of the day, do you eat lunch, luncheon, or dinner? Do you use a serviette or a napkin to wipe the crumbs from your mouth? And do you (excuse the indelicacy) go to the loo, the toilet, or the lavatory? When you ask, politely, for something, do you say “May I have…?” or “Can I have…?” Do you relax with a TV programme in the lounge, the living room, or the drawing room?

The minefield of lexical choice in these cases is tied up in the old class system. The upper classes used to take luncheon while the rest of us had lunch; having tea as a main evening meal was very much a working class word choice. But aspirational parents would encourage their children to adopt more genteel ways of speaking as part of the process of climbing the social ladder. Even if you weren’t actually “middle class”, you could at least talk like someone who was, which would represent some sort of social progress.

These days, we like to think that the class system is behind us, and that we live in a classless society with equality of opportunity for all, but there are still divisions within society that are identifiable by the way we speak.

This month, we’ll be discussing class English here at Macmillan Dictionary blog, and we’ll be looking at the various ways in which language and class are intertwined.

If you want to do some homework before tomorrow’s opening post on the topic, have a look at this clip in which representatives of three classes discuss how they relate to each other.

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Comments (8)
  • Mealtime vocabulary in English is a bit of a pig’s breakfast (or dog’s dinner). I was brought up to call the midday meal ‘dinner’, the evening one ‘tea’, and ‘supper’ is for me a wee snack before bedtime. But, although I refer to the midday meal time as ‘dinner time’, I’d also call it (in terms of working hours), a ‘lunch break’ or ‘lunch hour’, rather than a ‘dinner break/hour’. If I ask someone round for a meal in the evening, I ask them round for their ‘tea’ (‘dinner’ would sound a bit pretentious, as though I were cooking up a real feast) – but if I go out to a restaurant, I’d talk about going out for ‘dinner’ (or ‘lunch’ at midday). All a bit of a mishmash, even in one person’s idiolect.
    I wonder though, does anyone, however posh, ever call ‘dinner-ladies’ ‘lunch-ladies’??

    Posted by Janet Gough on 8th November, 2011
  • When I was growing up, our main evening meal was supper, though if my parents had people round it would be for dinner, and plenty of my schoolfriends went home for their tea. Some of the posher ones had high tea (though that’s probably showing my age, and I never really did get to the bottom of what high tea actually was. I think it’s extinct now.) In the middle of the day, after the dinner bell went we stood in the dinner queue, and then ate… lunch, served by… dinner ladies (never lunch-ladies, as you say, Janet). I don’t know of any other languages with so many permutations for names of meals, but there may well be some. And just as a postscript: although this topic has been raised in Class English month, it’s not entirely a class thing, it’s highly regional too. My guess is that tea as an evening meal name is more common in the North and Scotland than in the South.

    Posted by Stephen Bullon on 8th November, 2011
  • The word ‘tea’, referring to a meal, I’ve always associated with children. You don’t seem to serve ‘dinner’ to a child, but rather ‘tea’. I’ve always thought that was because most children tend to have their evening meal earlier in the day (when adults perhaps would be sipping their ‘tea’). The languages I speak certainly don’t have as wide a range of vocabulary for meals as English.

    Posted by Kati on 8th November, 2011
  • Coming from Canada I`d say you stay home for supper and go out for dinner.
    Since I`ve become an English teacher, and wonder about many things regarding language that I would never have given a second thought to before, I figure that a lot of choices we make in what words to use to say what`s on out mind is governed by how little mouth action is required to say the words. It is much easier to say dinner than supper. Same with babies, why do you think their first word is ma ma instead of let`s say…. father 🙂

    Posted by D Robinson on 8th November, 2011
  • I must agree with Stephen, I suspect this of the meal names to be more of a regional thing than a class thing. I lived in the South (Oxford) for many years and now I live in Scotland (St Andrews) since nearly 4 years and I must say I always heard of dinner and supper in Oxford when people were leaving to go home after work, while people here in Scotland seem to like calling it tea. My work environment is the same (academia) and I think there is as much variety of classes here as in Oxford among the people I know, so Stephen’s indications and my observations seem to agree.
    I’m not British, but my son in primary one has the same problem with all those ‘dinner terms’ when they go to eat their lunch. He daily chooses between packed ‘lunch’ from home, or eating the ‘school dinner’… for lunch!

    Posted by Giuseppe on 17th November, 2011
  • I don’t think it is regional, its more complicated than that. I was brought up on the south coast – Brighton – and we used “tea” for an evening meal, as did our neighbours. For us dinner was the main cooked meal of the day *whenever( you ate it. If it was in the early afternoon then your lunch was your dinner. If in the evening then your tea was your dinner. So we had “school dinners” (and “dinner ladies”) but on Sunday we had Sunday Lunch (at about 2 or 3pm) which was also Sunday Dinner.

    “Supper” on the other hand was a snack eaten at night. Using “supper” as the name of a sit-down evening meal still seems an innovation to me, and also rather posh. A friend of mine reckons its because a certain class of people associate “dinner” with formal dinner parties. Not something we ever used to have at ours.

    Posted by Ken Brown on 18th November, 2011
  • I don’t have a corpus to hand, but bizarrely there are far more google hits for ‘school lunch(es)’ than for ‘school dinner(s)’; yet I’ve never heard anyone, however posh, refer to the meal you have at school as ‘school lunch’ (Jamie’s School Lunches? it just doesn’t have the same ring, does it). What made me a bit nostalgic, though, was Stephen’s mention of high tea. I grew up in Essex and in my house you were lucky if you got some baked beans on toast; but my friend’s mother, who was from Manchester, used to do the most wonderful high teas with sandwiches, scones and various kinds of homemade cakes, not to mention tea, of course, all served on a trolley brought into the living room (or should that be the lounge?) I can’t remember if we used napkins or serviettes to wipe the crumbs from our mouths…

    Posted by Liz Potter on 21st November, 2011
  • I take your point Ken, but I think region is one of a number of factors that are inviolved. What’s really interesting about these word choices is that everyone has a slightly different interpretation of what’s going on. and we always adduce our own experience to justify our own particular take on it.

    Glad to hear you’ve actually seen a high tea, Liz. I’m currently reading C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers sequence of novels, and he and all his acquaintances from the 1920s to the 1960s regularly sit down to tea in the afternoon, a meal which seems to consist of large quantities of cake, with only the occasional mention of sandwiches. I’ve been waiting for him to refer to it as high tea, but so far it’s been plain “tea” every time.

    Posted by Stephen Bullon on 22nd November, 2011
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