Beyond Words - Language Blog

Countries Who Lunch

How does a country foster solidarity during a recession? With food. You may remember the post from a few months ago that explored the etymology of companion — from the Latin for breaking bread together. Well, every culture has distinct customs regarding food.

If the country in question is Britain, it sponsors a “Big Lunch” festival, of course! This past weekend hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of Britons hit the streets to bond over lunch with their neighbors thanks to the planning and creative initiative of the Eden Project, an environmental organization based in southwest England. Some parties were small, intimate gatherings while others were neighborhood block parties. Lunch, of course, was the central feature. In response to the recession and the general fracturing of society, “people have really come out and said ‘sod it’ to all the bad news that’s going on and decided just to have a nice lunch with their neighbors,” the spokesperson, Rhonda Hurcombe explained.

All this talk of lunch, of course, has me wondering where the word comes from. As ubiquitous as it is, I really had no idea of its origin, other than as a shortened version of luncheon. As a description of the midday meal, also referred to as “dinner” in English speaking countries, the Online Etymological Dictionary states that luncheon/lunch is derived from nonechenche, a “light midday meal (none=noon, schench=drink). The form luncheon is probably derived from the Spanish lonja, a slice, a loin. Luncheon, therefore, originally meant “a thick piece” or a “hunk.” The German lunchentach most likely influenced the shortened form, lunch, which came into use in the 19th century. Although this shortened form was originally considered vulgar and inappropriate, it is now the more commonly used form.

The shortened form unsurprisingly coincides with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. More and more workers needed a light, portable meal to take with them to work—something satisfying but light, quick, and easy to eat. Over time this meal, once carried in a tin, can, or tiffin, evolved, in America, into the brown bag lunch, and globally, the cafeteria.

Now that we’ve sated our etymological appetites, if you find yourself stranded somewhere other than Britain or America and in need of a substantial midday meal or a light snack, then this list might come in handy:

In France, the midday meal is déjeuner and is taken between noon and 2 p.m. Canadians French Canadians are a bit different, however, and call lunch diner—a light meal eaten when standing and not necessarily at noon. The modern German word for lunch is mittag, literally meaning “midday,” and again, German lunch hours correspond with the midday, or noon to 2 p.m. In Arabic one can use the word ghathaa’, a derivative of ghithaa‘, meaning, generally, “food.” This meal is eaten between 2 and 4 p.m. Finally, in Portuguese almoço means lunch, and, rightly so in my opinion, features a soup, a meat or fish course, and dessert—a full hot meal to keep one going through the long work day.

Photo, “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper” depicts workers eating their lunch hundreds of feet up during the construction of the Rockefellar Centre in New York, 1932. By Charles C. Ebbets. Via Wiki.