What is the difference between supper and dinner? Or is there even a difference at all? In this post, we will explore the origins of these two words, and try to settle the supper vs. dinner debate once and for all.
Supper vs. Dinner
Supper and Dinner are two words that seem to be related. Some might even use them interchangeably. But do they really mean the same thing, or are there some differences? As with so much of the English language, the answer isn’t quite as straightforward as it should be.
The dictionary defines “supper” as “an evening meal, typically a light or informal one.” Conversely, “dinner” is defined as “the main meal of the day, taken either around midday or in the evening.”
Obviously, both terms are related to eating, but let’s break them down a bit more.
Origins of Terms “Supper” and “Dinner”
The term “supper” comes from the old French noun “supe,” which was meant to refer to the last meal of the day. “Suppe” is also the German word for soup, which only served to strengthen the connection between the word “supper” and a light evening meal.
“Dinner,” on the other hand, comes from the Anglo-French verb, “disner,” meaning “to dine”. It has historically been used to refer to the main meal of the day.
Right through the end of the 19th century, when a large percentage of the population still made their living in agriculture, farmers had a large influence on the usage of the two words. Needing a large midday meal to provide energy and sustenance for the rest of the work day, farmers would normally have their largest meal of the day around noon, which they referred to as “dinner.” Then it was common to have a lighter evening meal, often soup or something along those lines, which continued to be known as “supper.”
As employment demographics have changed over time, there are fewer farmers and more people who work away from home. The logistics of being away from home all day, which is now common for most people in the workforce, limit the practicality of having your largest meal in the middle of the day. Limited time, packed lunches, and travel considerations all combine to make a smaller, faster midday meal more practical for most people. For this reason, the word “dinner” has gradually become the more common term for the evening meal among younger generations.
Older people, on the other hand, are still more likely to say “supper” when talking about their last meal of the day. Of course, the transition has been slow, and which word you choose doesn’t necessarily peg you to a specific age or generation. For instance, it could have less to do with your age, and more to do with where you live.
“Supper” is far more common in historically agricultural areas of the country. Southern states with a lot of farmers, and basically the whole of the Midwest, are places you are most likely to hear it used. But “dinner” has become far more common pretty much everywhere else,
Canada follows similar demographic patterns as the United States, with agricultural Saskatchewan and fishing-heavy maritime provinces using “supper.” In Australia, it is more about the time. A particularly late and/or light meal is “supper,” anything else is “dinner.” In Great Britain, they can’t seem to agree one way or the other, although “dinner” is probably more common these days.
Supper and Dinner Today – What Should You Say?
Overall, “dinner” is now the most common term for the evening meal, mainly due to a demographic shift away from agriculture toward jobs outside the home. Americans almost always refer to their midday meal as “lunch”, regardless of what they call the last meal of the day.
Adding to this trend is the almost universal use of “dinner” by restaurants. Whether they feel it sounds more significant, or maybe just more dignified, is hard to say, but most will offer a “lunch menu” and “dinner menu.”
Words have historically changed meaning frequently, and the most common way languages change is through usage – the more we hear a certain term used in a certain context, the more likely we are to do so ourselves.
In the end, however, you can feel perfectly justified using either word to describe your evening meal, but if you feel like you may as well get on board with the direction things are headed anyway, then “dinner” should probably be your choice.
Speaking of famous “suppers”, think you can name all the people in Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”?