Supper vs dinner?

English speakers use supper and dinner interchangeably to mean “evening meal.” However, the word supper is more common for British English and traditionally infers a lighter evening meal that occurs after an early dinner

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What is the difference between supper and dinner?

Most people look forward to certain meals throughout the day, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Depending on where you live, you might use terms like brunch, high tea, or siu yeh. Every meal term has a specific trait and time of day, but two of the more confusing terms are supper and dinner

In the United States, the words supper and dinner mean “evening meal,” but historically, people used them for separate meanings. For instance, supper is traditionally a light evening meal or a post-dinner snack, while dinner is the formal, main meal of the day. 

Before the 16th century, people ate dinner in the middle of the day instead of eating “lunch.” Dinner was also the largest meal of the day, which is the opposite of how Americans experience dinner now. Since people ate their biggest meal around noon, they accommodated their late-night munchies with “supper.” 

In other words, American English replaced the word dinner with “lunch,” and began eating their largest meal (dinner) at the end of the day. British English still uses the word dinner to mean “midday meal,” but not always. Dinner can still infer a large evening meal or a formal social occasion where food is served.

What is the definition of dinner?

The word dinner is a noun that describes any primary meal of the day, whether it occurs midday or at night. The noun also infers a family meal or a formal evening event that celebrates a special occasion, such as a holiday, birthday, or accomplishment. 

How to use dinner in a sentence?

Recent examples of dinner in a sentence include: 

“As billions of people around the world face stay-at-home orders… family dinners— and breakfasts and lunches— are resurgent.” –– NPR
“The yacht’s chef… prepared a sumptuous spread of jamon Ibérico to tide the guests over until their six-course dinner.” –– The New York Times
“The White House Correspondents’ Association has canceled its annual dinner …” –– Politico

Synonyms of dinner

Banquet, barbeque, buffet, cookout, feast, feed, luau, luncheon, regale, smorgasbord, spread.

What is the definition of supper?

The word supper is a noun that infers the largest meal of the day, a small evening meal, or an evening social event where dinner is served. The original meaning of supper involved a light meal after a noon dinner. In Scottish English, word supper is any food that’s paired with French fries

As an adjective, we can use the word supper to relate other people, places, or things to the concept of supper. For example, 

“Let’s meet around supper time.” 
“Come meet our supper guest.” 

How to use supper in a sentence?

Recent examples of supper in a sentence include: 

“A hearty savory supper with a surprisingly sweet bonus …” –– The New York Times
“The wild-game supper has traditionally been a way for rural America to share the harvest before winter sets in.” –– NPR
“How can I enjoy my supper when someone else is hungry?” –– The Perry News

Synonyms of supper

Breakfast, buffet, cookout, collation, dinner, luau, lunch, luncheon, picnic, potluck, refreshments, smorgasbord, snack, tea. 

The fascinating history of dinner and supper

The word dinner entered the English Language around the 12th century from Middle French disner to mean “first big meal of the day.” The Old French word stems from Low Latin disnáre and desinere for “to leave off,” which essentially means ‘to leave work for a meal.’ 

Despite its current use, the word dinner didn’t always mean “evening meal.” During the 11th century, the word disner meant “breakfast” (yes, that’s right!). The practice of eating dinner after breakfast began around the 18th century, where Europeans consumed their biggest meal between noon and 3 p.m. 

European farming communities maintained the tradition of early dinners, but people of the higher class began eating much later. Between the years 1760 and 1820, King George III ate dinner at the “Hanoverian hour” of 4 p.m., and his successor, King George IV, preferred dinner between 6 and 7 p.m.

The next successor upheld the Georive IV’s mealtime until the reign of Queen Victoria, who moved dinner to 8 p.m. around 1837. Since the Queen’s meal occurred much later, the tradition of a “dinette” began, which is a small, cold meal that’s served around 2 p.m. 

Let them eat cake… or supper (whichever you can afford)

Did you know?: Middle French “souper” (supper) is very similar to “soppa” and “suppe,” which are also Swedish and German words for soup. 

As mentioned before, people of the working class ate dinner earlier because they worked and went to bed earlier than people who didn’t. If someone ate dinner around noon, it was common to eat supper as the last meal of the day between 5 and 7 p.m. 

Supper has traditionally consisted of lighter meal options, but as you’d expect, it also depends on social status. According to Charles W. Hutson’s 1897 book, The Story of Language, the word supper comes from Old French soper (or Middle French souper), which means: 

“‘To sup,’ and that is from soupe, the evening meal being simply a soup or broth, or bread and milk, a repast [light meal] without meat.”

It’s fair to say that Hutson’s definition of supper pertains to low or middle-class folks, as people of higher classes enjoyed more lavish food options and held starkly different traditions of supper “etiquette,” if you will. 

Marie Antionette, the last Queen of France, enjoyed supper around 9 p.m., which often included more food than her dinner. According to historical writer Geri Walton, the French Queen’s suppers consisted of, “a little bouillon, the wing of a chicken, and a glass of water in which she dips some little biscuits.” 

Another historical example involves Frances Bankes, the wife of an English politician, who famously welcomed 140 aristocratic guests for a ball at Kingston Hall in 1791. According to Regency History, supper began at 1 a.m., and the event ended with breakfast at 7 a.m. 

The tradition of later supper times and exorbitant palates continued into modernity, where high-class supper achieved many forms. According to Emily Post’s 1922 handbook, “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home,” a sit-down supper was “continuous” (two to three hours-long), or it occurred at a set time. 

A continuous sit-down supper is said to be the “most elaborate ball supper,” as it always included champaign and food that didn’t spoil quickly, such as pâtes, sweetbreads, or creamed oysters. Meanwhile, a set-time supper featured an unlimited menu because the kitchen was at the guest’s beck and call

Buffet suppers occurred at dances, not balls, although most suppers provided an additional buffet table for cold items. The term supper service referred to upscale balls in New York City that occurred between one and three in the morning. 

Rural America and the “supper of rustics”

Outside of the glitzy city-life, farming families of the American South and midwestern states continued the distinction between supper and dinner. But why the difference?

According to Ligaya Mishan of The New York Times, the definition of dinner began changing with the advent of gaslights and electricity. City lights allowed people to work longer and eat dinner later, while rural populations relied more on daylight and candles. 

Food historian Helen Zoe Veit agrees that rural Americans didn’t have the luxury of a late-night dinner/supper (or even a second-supper, for that matter). Viet explains in a 2015 NPR article: 

“… having a second supper before widespread electrification would have been [a luxury] since it would have required having enough fuel to illuminate a room well after sundown.”

As noted by the NYT, industrialism gradually transformed late dinners into a necessity when factory workers couldn’t rely on a noon meal. So while “dinner” replaced the time of “supper,” Americans in the Midwest and South stuck with the word “supper,” instead.

Indeed, Mishan points out how the 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of English Language states, “The dinner of fashionable people would be the supper of rustics.” 

Did you know?: Christians began using the word supper for the last meal of Christ in the 12th century. Nearly three centuries later, Leonardo Da Vinci created his famous mural “The Last Supper” in Milan, Italy. 

Who uses the words supper and dinner now?

Since the turn of the 20th century, the word dinner has remained more common than supper for American English. However, supper and dinner retained their traditional meanings in Southern and Midwestern states, Northeastern Canada, and British-English dialects throughout the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. 

Google Books’ Ngram Viewer also shows how the frequency of “dinner” began surpassing “supper” within the 18th and 19th centuries. The word dinner peaked in American and British English between 1880 and 1910, while the frequency of supper remained relatively low (presumably with younger generations). 

When to use supper or dinner for writing?

If you’re writing for an American audience, it’s best to use the word dinner to mean “a large meal” at night. Outside of midwestern or southern states, many people might not understand “supper” in the traditional sense (i.e., as a secondary, light evening meal). 

For English-speaking audiences outside of the United States, the word dinner is still more common than supper. However, if your audience lives in the United Kingdom, Northeastern Canada, Australia, or New Zealand–– there’s a good chance they use dinner and supper in the traditional format. 

Test Yourself!

Are you ready to dig into your grammar skills? See how much you’ve learned about supper vs. dinner with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. The word dinner originally implied a meal at what time? 
    a. Morning 
    b. Noontime 
    c. Early afternoon
    d. Late evening
  2. Modest, traditional suppers consisted of ___________? 
    a. Pot of soup
    b. Bread and milk
    c. Chicken wings
    d. A and B
  3. Where are you most likely to hear “supper” over “dinner” in the US?
    a. California
    b. Wisconsin 
    c. Washington DC.
    d. Hawaii 
  4. Which of the following words is not synonymous with “dinner”? 
    a. Buffet
    b. Luncheon
    c. Tea
    d. Smorgasbord 
  5. Which of the following words is not synonymous with “supper”? 
    a. Feast
    b. Picnic 
    c. Refreshments
    d. Dinner
  6. Bonus Question: Old French translated the Latin words disnáre and desinere to mean ______________.
    a. Soup cooking
    b. Light evening meal
    c. Leaving work for a meal
    d. Morning meal 

Answers

  1. B
  2. D
  3. B
  4. C
  5. A
  6. C

Sources

  1. Albright, Charlotte. “In Vermont, A Wild-Game Church Supper Feeds The Multitudes.” NPR, 26 Nov 2013. 
  2. Davies, Dave. “Cooking During COVID-19: Family Meals And Fantasies Of Future Dinner Parties.” NPR, 7 Apr 2020. 
  3. Dinner.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  4. Dinner.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  5. Harper, Douglas. “Dinette (n.)Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020. 
  6. Harper, Douglas. “Dinner (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020. 
  7. Hutson, Charles W. “The Story of Language.” A.C. McClurg and Company, 1897, pp. 305. 
  8. Knowles, Rachel. “Frances Bankes’ ball at Kingston Lacy 19 December 1791.” Regency History, 19 Dec 2018. 
  9. Marino, Nick. “A Fashion Designer’s Reimagining of a Quinoa Bowl.” The New York Times, 26 June 2020. 
  10. Mishan, Ligaya. “The Chefs Reinventing the Midwestern Supper Club.” The New York Times, 7 Oct 2019. 
  11. Oprysko, Caitlin. “White House Correspondents’ Association cancels 2020 dinner.” Politico, 23 June 2020. 
  12. Post, Emily (1922). “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home.” Funk & Wagnalls, Google Books, 21 Oct 2008, pp. 163-278. 
  13. Supper.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  14. Supper.” Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Dictionary.com, 2020. 
  15. Walton, Geri. “Marie Antoinette’s Daily Schedule as Queen.” Geri Walton, 1 Mar 2020. 
  16. Weaver, Caity. “The Reality Behind ‘Below Deck.'” The New York Times, 29 June 2020.
  17. Weeks, Linton. “How Many Daily Meals Did We Once Eat?NPR, 29 Sept 2015.