Episode 133: Breaking Bread With Companions

In this episode, we explore words associated with mealtime in the Middle Ages. We also examine the important role of bread in medieval meals and impact of bread-related terms on the English language. Finally, we look at the important role of table manners as outlined in an early English etiquette guide called the Boke of Curtasye.


38 thoughts on “Episode 133: Breaking Bread With Companions

    • Great question! I see where you’re going with that. The PIE root of ‘food’ is *pa, and the PIE root of ‘father’ is *pater. And both words apparently had a sense of ‘to feed or protect.’ However, to my knowledge, and according to my sources, the words are not related. The possible connection is intriguing though, especially given that *pater is thought to derive from the ‘pa’ sound made by babies (similar to the ‘ma’ sound which produced similar words for mother across many languages).

  1. “Evening is here
    The board is spread.
    Thanks be to God
    Who gives us bread.”
    (Sung grace I learned at Scout camp long ago)

  2. When I was at school in the UK in the 1950s and 60s we were given a cooked meal at school at noon so when we got home we would have a light meal about 5pm which was referred to a “tea” – a name presumably derived from the drink.

    Also in some old books – I think it comes in Shakespeare but I can’t remember where – the noon meal is referred to a “nuncheon”. Is there any connexion between this and “luncheon” and is “lunch” a contraction of “luncheon” or is “luncheon” a lengthening of “lunch”?

    Another great episode. Do you think you’ll reach a thousand?

    • In the first draft of the episode, I included a brief discussion about “nuncheons,” but I deleted it in the interest of time. A “nuncheon” was a small snack, and the word was actually derived from the word “noon.” It is widely believed that “nuncheon” influenced “luncheon,” or vice versa. The problem is that the nature of the influence is unclear (which is ultimately why I deleted that part of the discussion from the episode). Here is what the OED says about the connection under the entry for “nuncheon”: “…compare also parallel spellings of ‘luncheon’ (n.), with which the word seems likely to have been associated, although the direction of any influence is unclear.”

      “Lunch” and “luncheon” both appeared in English around the same time in the late 1500s. (“Luncheon” pre-dated “lunch” in the surviving manuscripts by about a decade.) However, scholars are not entirely sure if “lunch” is a shortened version of “luncheon,” or if “lunch” was extended to “luncheon” based on the influence of “nuncheon.” Again, the sources are unclear about the precise relationship between those words.

    • Here in New Zealand, the evening meal is still commonly referred to as “tea”. It tends to be early (before 6pm) but might be the largest meal of the day. “Dinner” is a special evening meal – either with friends or in a restaurant and is usually after 6pm. “Dinner” is also, rarely, used for a main meal at midday (which seldom happens these days).

      • When I grew up in Yorkshire in the 50s, there were four meals a day – ‘breakfast’, ‘dinner’, ‘tea’ and ‘supper’.

        The women who prepared and served our midday meal at school were our ‘dinner ladies’. Recently, however, the term ‘lunch’ tends to be more used for the midday meal, presumably because of the influence of TV. I still think of the midday meal as ‘dinner’ but say ‘lunch’ to avoid confusing Southerners. As Judih says, ‘dinner’ in the evening is only for posh events in restaurants.

        ‘Tea’ remains the most widely used term for the early evening meal in Yorkshire and, often, is the main meal of the day.

        ‘Supper’ was a cup of tea and biscuits or a sandwich around 8:30/9:00pm

        • I also grew up (and have always lived) in Yorkshire.
          I totally concur with your comment, Derek.

          It’s always been breakfast, dinner and tea (with tea being the main meal of the day, eaten at around 6pm). If we ever have supper it’s a drink and light snack shortly before bedtime.

          – I too often use ‘lunch’ so as not to confuse outsiders!

        • It’s not about north and south. It’s a class thing. I was brought up in South London and we had dinner at midday and tea in the early evenIng. And our school dinner ladies were called dinner ladies! When I went to university and started mixing with middle class people I often confused people by using the ‘wrong’ word. I still ask my grandchildren what they want for tea. They sigh and say ‘you mean dinner’.

  3. Here’s a story of how “upper crust” came to refer to noble classes. People who have baked bread in brick ovens are familiar with the ash left in the bottom of the oven. Often the loaf’s bottom crust could have a residue of ash from the fire that heated the oven because they were free form, and no loaf pans would have been used. Not all of the ash could be wiped away before the loaves were added. So those ashy loaves would not be given to the lord or other nobles. An additional thing to remember is that people baked in fired ovens for a few centuries after the 14th – before cast iron stoves became available in the 18th or 19th century.

  4. Your discussion about using bread to sop up soup at suppertime made me think of a regional expression my grandfather used to use.

    He was from Harrisburg, Pa., and he had Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. When he wanted bread to sop up the juices on his plate, he would ask for “dippy bread.”

    Apparetly “dippy” is a word for gravy. I never heard him use that word for gravy, but “dippy bread” became part of our family lexicon at the dinner table.

    Thank you for a great podcast.

  5. Kevin – great episode on food! Well done. You mentioned in the podcast that the word “dinner” is derived from Latin. I looked up the etymology of the word dinner and found out that it literally means to break one’s fast (which is consistent with it being the term used for the first main meal of the day eaten sometime around noon during the Middle Ages). So both breakfast and dinner have the exact same etymological meaning with one being of Germanic origin and the other Latin. Thought you would find that interesting in the unlikely event you didn’t already know it.

    • Thanks for the note. Yes, the word “dinner” is derived from the same Latin root as the French word “déjeuner” meaning lunch. Both terms are cognate, and both literally mean ‘a break in the fast.’ Originally, it referred to a break in the fast in the middle of the day or afternoon. English later adopted the same construction for the morning meal. I am not sure if the meaning behind the Latin term influenced the English term “breakfast.”

  6. Is “company” related to “compensate”?

    Your podcasts should confer college credits! So much knowledge carried in a completely entertaining cloak. You’ll be referenced in the 2520 version in “the history of the history of the English language podcast. “

    • I don’t think ‘company’ and ‘compensate’ are etymologically related. ‘Company’ is derived from Latin ‘panis’ meaning bread as Kevin discussed but ‘compensate’ derives from the Latin

    • Thanks for the comments. With respect to your question, “compensate” and “company” are unrelated. The ‘pen’ in “compensate” is actually derived from a separate Latin root. That root is “pendere” which meant ‘to hang, weigh or pay’ (probably related to the scales used in measurements).

  7. Thanks for the explanation of the word “supper.” I grew up in Michigan spent a lot of time in the Upper Peninsula. As a kid, I was amused by the several “supper clubs” that were up in the UP (or “da Yoop” for native Yoopers).

  8. Being half French Canadian and half Canadian Anglo I grew up saying “Dîner” for the afternoon meal and “Souper” for Supper. But also grew up saying “Dinner” for Supper and “lunch” for the afternoon meal…lol It all makes sense in my head. Breakfast and Dejeuner pretty much mean the same thing so there’s no confusion there..Hehe

  9. I grew up in northern Wisconsin where Apfel Kuchen” was a common word for Apple Cake. I know that these are a German derived words. Can you pinpoint the time when the Dutch “kuchen” for “cookie” diverged from the German “cake”?

    • I don’t know the answer to that. Unfortunately, I don’t have a Dutch etymology dictionary. Maybe someone else can chime in with the answer.

      • Lexilogos, is a comprehensive set of resources for the study of the languages of the world” (their words). It includes links to a few Dutch etymology dictionaries among many other linguistic tools.

        • I’ve looked it up in Lexilogos. The word is actually ‘koek’ (pronounced like cook) and a small ‘koek’ is a ‘koekje’ which became cookie. In the Dutch etymology dictionary it says that ‘koek’ was first used in compound words like ‘pancoca’ which is a pancake baker. They write that it is a Germanic word with unknown origin. Maybe it comes from the same root as the French word cuisiner (cooking). But you can see variations of ‘koek’ in every Germanic language. I found this here (but it is in Dutch): http://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/koek

          I really love this show. I am a Dutch native speaker and I teach English as a second language. I also study Swedish. I think it is great to recognise so many words of a lot of languages in old and middle English. This show makes me realise how everything is connected.

    • We had elevenses in Ireland when I was in primary school in the 1970s.
      For me growing up in Dublin then, breakfast was breakfast. Dinner was the main meal of the day but could be had at any time of the day from midday onwards. Lunch was a light meal at noontime and usually something I brought into school with me in a lunchbox. If we had dinner at noon, then we had tea around 6-7pm. Dinner was usually in the evening after we were all home from school or work. Supper was for protestants and English people.

  10. In Australia we would generally have three meals a day, referred to as in the iconic Vegemite ad: “We’re happy little Vegemites, as bright as bright can be; we all enjoy our Vegemite for breakfast, lunch and tea”. Dinner and tea are used almost interchangeably for the evening meal. I would always refer to a hot cooked midday meal as dinner, but my children (teenagers) do not recognise this terminology and pull me up on it every time, so I guess this usage is dying out. But a cold midday meal is always lunch!

    • I’m also Australian. As well as the meals Isabel mentions we also had: morning tea (a snack of cake, biscuits or a sandwich or fruit and tea or coffee or cordial) between breakfast and lunch; and afternoon tea (again a snack with drink) between lunch and dinner. These “teas” occured across society often mandated in workplaces and had by children when they got home from school. Ladies at home often had ‘tea’ with friends either in each others homes or in a cafe. On top of that dinner of an evening was also often called ‘tea’ too. And, to end the day, the adults would often have a small supper of something cold and a hot drink or alcohol later at night before bed.

  11. I’m a little late to the party but loving the podcasr. I was born in England, moved to Ireland as a child and then Denmark as an adult. Just thought I’d mention the interesting point thar bord is both Irish and Danish for rable. It really is so interesting how all these languages are connected

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