The confusion of mealtime names
It is sometimes difficult for visitors to Britain to understand the names for the different mealtimes. Although this may sound surprising, the names which are given to meal times can change depending on where you live in the country, your wealth or status and even your family traditions.
The good news is that everyone calls the morning meal breakfast. This dates back to the 15th Century; it means ‘to break fast’. In other words, to eat for the first time after a period of fasting (to fast = to not eat).
The bad news is that for the rest of the day, the names of meals can be different. It is important to understand that London and the south-east of England follow a slightly different trend to the rest of the country. Also, wealth may be the reason why the names given to meal times change.
People in London and the south-east call the midday meal lunch and the evening meal dinner. This is a simple idea and what most people learning English as a foreign language would learn as the normal names for the meals.
Outside of London and the south-east of England, the midday meal is called dinner and the evening meal is called tea. In wealthier families, the midday meal may be lunch or dinner and the evening meal supper.
Now, this is where it starts to become harder to understand. Historically, working class families would have a meal at around 5 pm, when the man of the house returned from work. Eating at this time may leave an adult hungry at around 9 pm, resulting in a smaller meal, also known as supper.
Tea can also be used to mean a hot drink and a snack such as biscuits or cake. This may be taken mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Further problems may be added when you think about afternoon tea or high tea.
Afternoon tea was common among wealthy people in the 19th century. This would be tea and sandwiches, sometimes cake as well. This has become a luxury, often taken by tourists and visitors at expensive hotels such as The Ritz. This may also include alcoholic drinks such as wine or champagne.
A Cream Tea is different again. This is a scone, a heavy bun which usually contains dried fruit, served with jam and clotted cream (cream which is being made into butter – delicious if not very healthy). Interestingly, there is often a lot of discussion about the order the cream and jam are added to the scone – cream then jam or jam then cream. However you put it all together, it will be delicious and I highly recommend that you try one.
High tea started as the working class or northern version of dinner. The name comes from the idea that this meal would be taken at a high table, whereas afternoon tea would be served whilst sitting on a sofa (also known as low tea). However, the name was taken by expensive hotels and used to attract tourists for afternoon tea. This would have included something hot, for example, Welsh Rarebit (fancy cheese on toast), pies, muffins or omelette.
To make this situation a bit more complicated, there are certain meals and even places which take no notice of wealth or geographical boundaries. In Britain, it is common to have a large meal on Sunday, consisting of roasted meat, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy. Some people call this Sunday lunch, some call it Sunday dinner. It may or may not be served at midday, mid-afternoon or in the evening and it is, of course, possible to eat this food on any day of the week. The easiest thing to do is to call it a Sunday roast. The main meal on Christmas day also has the same problem.
Schools add further to the problems. Meals cooked by the school are usually called school dinners, but if a student brings their own food from home, this is called packed lunch. Interestingly, there is a difference in the type of food which is being eaten; school dinners are cooked and served hot on a plate, whereas a packed lunch is usually sandwiches, crisps, fruit and something sweet, such as a chocolate bar.
Other meals cause more problems. For example, the mid-morning snack may be called Elevenses, coffee break, tea time or if like me, you’ve seen The Lord of The Rings, second breakfast. There is also brunch – a combination of breakfast and lunch, served mid-morning, often at the weekend (or any day if you’re a university student) and is big enough for you not to eat again until the evening.
One thing that is for certain is that the idea that the whole of the UK stops what they are doing at 5 pm to drink tea is a myth.