On a recent trip to Bermuda, during a bicycle tour of the country's , a train track completed in the 1930s but abandoned shortly after due to the impracticality of its slow-moving locomotive, I was reminded of something I hadn't thought about in years: the fact that my granddad used to call lunch "dinner" and dinner "supper." This lightening bolt hit when my group, led by our trusty guides Adrian and Johno from , took a detour to Fort Scaur, a hillside bunker constructed by British soldiers in the mid-19th century.
There, in one of its subterranean passages, was a placard detailing a typical day's schedule for the soldiers, a rather mundane existence of practice drills, exercise, and cleaning weapons, punctuated only by three meals, the last of which was "supper." Supper — I hadn't heard that word in a while and it got my wheels turning: Whatever happened to supper?
I'm not the only one who recalls their grandparents using the term. 's Nancy Mitchell, a fellow Southerner, writes, "[A]t grandma's, dinner happened at noon and there was another meal, supper, in the evening ... until very recently I chalked this up as one of those South vs. North things."
Is it a Southern thing? Not really. It's more of a farming thing, but because Southern and Midwestern states relied on an agricultural economy in the past (whereas the Northeast was more industrialized), having "supper" in one's vocabulary is associated with those regions.
As food historian Helen Zoe Veit told , during the 1700s and 1800s, most Americans consumed their biggest meal of the day around noon, with a lighter meal in the evening. This jibes with the definition of dinner, which Mitchell points out is, according to Dictionary.com, the "main meal of the day, taken either around midday or in the evening."
According to the , a question-and-answer forum for linguists and etymologists, "many people who grew up in the American South and/or on farms traditionally ate larger meals at noontime to give them the strength to keep working through the afternoon." Supper, the site goes on to say, stems from the word "to sup," which just goes to show that even back then, country folks loved their : "Many farming families would have a pot of soup cooking throughout the day, and would eat it in the evening." In other words, "they would 'sup' the soup."
The largest meal began staking its claim on evenings, Voit told NPR, when "more Americans were working outside of the home and farm, so they couldn't readily return home to cook and eat in the middle of the day." And thus, dinner usurped supper, leaving us younger generations wondering why our elders had a confusing habit of calling lunch by its successor's name.