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Friday, December 27, 2013

Guess who's coming to....

You're probably still digesting that mountainous meal you tucked into two days ago. But what meal was it? Dinner? Supper?

A Saskatchewanian once recounted to me how, as a young woman, she made a date for dinner with an Ontarian she had her eye on. She arrived at the restaurant promptly at midday, and he, equally punctual, arrived... 6 hours later. 

This linguistic contretemps highlights an intriguing phenomenon: what we call our midday and evening meals. Many Canadians, on first encountering someone from another province referring to lunch as dinner, make sweeping generalizations of the type “In Ontario we all say lunch and in the Maritimes they all say dinner”, but it is not really a regional distinction. If the object of Saskatchewanian desire had been from rural Ontario, he probably would have turned up at the restaurant at noon too. 

By far the majority of Canadians call their midday meal “lunch”. Their evening meal is “dinner” or “supper”, which words can be used interchangeably. I myself might say, “I have to make dinner” and then announce its arrival on the table half an hour later with a cheery “Supper's ready!” 

However, we do make some distinctions. For instance, we usually call it only “dinner” when we go out to a restaurant, are feeling formal, or invite people over. The only circumstances in which we would use “dinner” for an earlier meal is for very large meals eaten in the middle of the afternoon like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Meanwhile, some say, “supper” is a lighter evening meal. Try telling that to someone who has just consumed one of those epitomes of epicurism, the community “lobster supper” of the Maritimes and “fall supper” or “fowl supper” of the West, which prove that no matter what we call the meal, we are united in our belief that the object is to stuff ourselves with as much food as possible. 

Speaking of that pre-eminent Prairie poultry pigout, people sometimes ask me which is “correct”: fall or fowl? Both are correct, and both are appropriate, since these events happen in the autumn and turkey is usually the pièce de résistance.

For some, especially older Canadians or those from rural areas, the midday meal is always “dinner” and the evening meal always “supper”. But then, just to confuse matters further, “lunch” may mean a late evening snack, or indeed afternoon refreshments. I have fond memories of my great-aunts in southwestern Manitoba offering a “lunch” (at what I would call teatime), said “lunch” turning out to be an enormous repast featuring the best farmwife's home baking and preserving.

There is even a uniquely Canadian idiom involving dinner: “done like dinner”, meaning “completely defeated or over with”. Oddly, the Australians have a similar, but not identical, expression, “done like a dinner”, which to them means “outwitted”.

As for those Ontarian and Saskatchewanian lovebirds, well, in spite of the rocky start to their romance, they've been together for many years, but they keep their “mixed marriage” on an even keel only by agreeing to use “supper” for meals at home and “dinner” for meals out. A typically Canadian compromise, thankfully; what a shame it would have been for their relationship to be done like ... lunch?

What do you call your midday, evening, and festive meals? Let me know in the comments (along with some info about where you are from, age, urban/rural, whatever you think pertinent)!


  1. I am 49 and grew up in rural Ontario and my midday meal has always been "lunch." My evening meal is usually "supper" but if it is for a big occasion than it is "dinner".

  2. The same sort of confusion might occur between people from France and those from other countries speaking French. For most French, lunch is "déjeûner" and supper is "dîner", whereas for a French-speaking Swiss such as myself, lunch is "dîner" and supper is "souper", keeping "déjeûner" as a space-saving alternative to "petit-déjeûner" at breakfast...
    In my mind, though I cannot confirm it, those differences come more from varying work schedules than geography: a farmer who wakes up at 4am to tends to the cows might well find himself eating a hearty dinner at the same time a freshly awakened "oisif" might be looking for a cup of coffee. Parisian French most probably evolved from the aristocratic elite while the "province" (including other French-speaking countries) stuck to a more down-to-earth language...

    All this rambling on a satisfyingly full stomach and a full brain, having been redirected to your delightful blog by the final words of David Marsh's For Who the Bell Tolls! :)

    1. Hello Timtom and thanks for visiting. Here in Canada francophones use the dejeuner, diner, souper system as well.

  3. 52, grew up in NL but lived 20+ years in ON. Now living in NL again. NL used the breakfast-dinner-supper system. My parents always had a small snack before bed--this was "lunch". Once when in NS my father confused some acquaintances by phoning them and saying we'd see them "after tea". He meant after the mid-day meal. Of course I switched to breakfast-lunch-dinner when I moved to ON. Nowadays the mid-day meal seems to be called "lunch" in NL too, though that may depend on one's age.

  4. I grew up on a farm southeast of Winnipeg. We used the breakfast, dinner and supper labels. At age 59, and living in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, I am very annoyed at the breakfast lunch and dinner labels. Lunch and dinner maybe interchanged, but dinner and supper can not. Supper is supper is supper. On the farm, the Sunday evening meal was called 'faspa' and a latenight snack was called night lunch. Personally, people who call the evening meal dinner, are out to lunch.

    1. Hi Linc, and thanks for visiting. Kind of reminds me of the old saying "you can call me anything, just don't call me late for dinner, ooops I mean supper...."

  5. I'm originally from Lancashire in the North of England. When I was growing up, everyone had the main meal at noon - therefore we had breakfast followed by dinner but the evening meal was always "tea" (high tea, which Canadians often mistakenly think means afternoon tea). Supper was a little snack of cocoa or Nescafe with maybe a piece of parkin (cake made with treacle & oatmeal) before bed. Nowadays my Lancastrian brother still uses the same names, even though their main meal is now in the evening. It's still confusingly called tea!

    1. Hi J White, and thanks for your interesting input. It would be very confusing to Linc (above) if he got invited to your Lancastrian brother's for "supper" and got only cocoa and cake!

    2. Just don't get tead off.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.