Did you know ‘dinner’ once meant “breakfast”?

By Joanne Yeo - Monday, Nov 12, 2012

If you think three meals a day isn’t enough to keep your hunger pangs at bay, you probably would not have survived through the 16th Century when having only two meals a day was the norm.


The first meal, “dinner” was eaten at around 11am and later followed by supper in the evening, as recorded by literary evidences in the 16th Century. According to these evidences, in certain parts of Europe such as Spain, Venice and Genoa, “dinner”was a light meal while supper is a heavier one. For the rest of Europe, it was the opposite.


It must be pretty confusing why dinner is eaten as the first meal of the day. To understand this, we trace back to the ambiguity of word ‘dinner’ itself, which literally meant breakfast. Deriving from the Vulgar Latin word ‘disjunare ’, which formed by compounding ‘dis’, a prefix which means not and ‘jejunium’ which means fast or hungry period. When put together, ‘disjunare’ would mean to ‘stop being hungry’ or ‘break a fast’.


Dinnertime gradually shifted and was held later and later in the day. By the late 18th Century, it had possibly shifted to as late as 4 or 5pm. It is only in recent times that dinner has come to mean a meal in the evening, and supper became less important. Consequently, this led to the invention of a new meal that we now know as ‘lunch’.


The origin of the breakfast (the meal that we now eat in the morning) is relatively unclear as evidences are elusive. What is clear is that as dinner was consumed later in the day, people were becoming hungrier in the morning. This was especially so for countries where the evening meal is light one.


In Southern Europe, breakfast, consisting of coffee and a pastry was still not considered a proper meal. This continued till the 18th Century, where it was still eaten at around 9am or 10 am. In the 19th Century that breakfast evolved to a more sumptuous meal of bacon, eggs and even steaks.
And thus, came about the three-meal-a-day pattern that we are all familiar with today.


References: Food in Early Modern Europe By Ken Albala Cupboard Love, 2nd Ed.: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities By Mark Morton
Steak for dinner or breakfast anybody?