Dinner Tea and Supper
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Hi there, I’m Hilary and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. Just in case you haven’t listened to one of our podcasts before, the aim is to help you become fluent in English, through listening. Listening will help you learn to think in English and take you away from translating. Adept English aims to help you through the difficult stages of learning a language – and the listening that you do with us will support you when you come to speak English.
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So today’s subject. What do we call our meals in the UK? A meal is a time when you sit down, possibly with members of your family and you eat together. It’s often said that people have a lot of dinners in front of the TV, the television or that families don’t eat together. But most of the families I know do sit down and eat together in the evening, round a table most of the time.
So the simplest meal of the day – and one which pretty much everyone in the UK calls the same thing is breakfast. Literally the word means that you are ‘breaking your fast’. A ‘fast’ is the name for a period of time when you don’t eat. So this ‘fast’ means overnight you didn’t eat anything, so when you have your breakfast in the morning, you ‘break fast’. Not everyone eats breakfast of course, but those who do are likely to eat toast, so that’s toasted bread or cereal, most days of the week. Cereal means cornflakes or cheerios or something made by Kelloggs or Nestlé which you eat in a bowl with milk. Most people probably drink tea, coffee or orange juice with this. In the UK, people also eat cooked breakfast sometimes, maybe at the weekend, and this may include bacon and eggs and sausages. But most people don’t eat this all the time – they want to be healthy and not eat too much.
So breakfast is fairly simple. However, with the other two meals of the day, it can be a bit confusing. Confusing because the names vary depending upon which part of the UK you’re from. So in the south of England – usually, people will call the meal in the middle of the day ‘lunch’. This is the meal you have at around one o’clock, 1pm, certainly between 12pm and 2pm. And if you’re at work, this is probably referred to as your lunch break. And then for most people in the south of England, the meal that you eat in the evening when you get home from work – is dinner. So dinner would be probably 7pm or 8pm in the evening.
But in the north of England, the Midlands, parts of Wales, parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, people may talk about the meal they eat at lunchtime as their ‘dinner’ and their evening meal as their ‘tea’. So why this difference?
There’s a bit of history behind this – and it’s a bit to do with the British class system, as well as which part of the UK you’re from. If you haven’t heard of this before, the British class system is quite complex – and difficult even for people born in the UK sometimes. It’s a whole discussion topic on its own. To help you understand the idea, if you think of the early 1900s, there was a big difference between the lives of the upper classes – and the working classes. If you’ve ever watched TV programmes like Downton Abbey, this will help! The upper classes are the people who belong to the aristocratic families, like the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. So the people who were rich, owned the big houses, lots of land. They’re the upper classes, and they’re often referred to as ‘posh’. They would have a meal called ‘afternoon tea’, served at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, where cakes and small sandwiches and cups of tea (meaning the drink here) would have been taken, probably mainly by the ladies. These women didn’t work and so had time to drink tea at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Then they would have eaten a more formal dinner at around 8 o’clock in the evening. Formal means a meal that you dress up for, which probably has several courses. It’s more serious, like a ceremony. It’s what you’d call it now, if you went out for your evening meal to a nice restaurant, one with white table cloths and wine glasses, you would call this going out for dinner.
In the 1900s however, the working class people were the normal people, who weren’t rich. So again, if you think of Downton Abbey, this would have meant the servants, the people who worked downstairs. More generally, ‘working class’, meant the people who had to go out to work for their money, in factories or as servants or people working on the land or down mines. Mines are where you work underground. So the working classes would usually have started work very early in the morning, so they would have been hungry by the middle of the day and returned home for their main meal – and therefore called that their dinner. And when they returned home at the end of the day, they would have been hungry having worked long hours and wanted to eat straight away. So they had a meal called ‘high tea’ which would have been eaten in the early evening 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock. So this is why some people call their midday meal their dinner and their evening meal their tea.
So why this difference? It certainly isn’t that all the working class people live in the North, Wales, Scotland or the Midlands or rural Ireland – and that the upper class people live in the south of the UK. That wouldn’t be true. But it does reflect the areas where there was industrialization. So industry means lots of factories making clothes, steel, building ships or later on making cars. And towns formed to serve these industries. So these would have been areas where the people were known as working class, with their own traditions. And in the south of the UK, perhaps people didn’t feel so strongly about being working class. They were happy to be thought of as ‘middle class’ , so they adopted the term ‘dinner’ for their evening meal.
Another difference is with the word ‘supper’. This is another word for a meal, but again means different things in different parts of the UK. When I was young and growing up in the north of England, in a very working class area, anything you ate or drank just before bedtime would be known as ‘supper’. So supper was eaten really late at night. It might have been a hot chocolate drink and a biscuit. But if you are truly middle or upper class, then supper tends to mean your evening meal, the big meal that you eat at home in the evening around 8 o’clock (what most people call dinner). So if someone says ‘supper’ to mean their evening meal, it could be that they’re quite posh.
The other possibility to be aware of, is that if someone invites you ‘for tea’, then depending on the time of day, they may just mean a cup of tea. Drinking tea is very popular in Britain. A good cup of tea is something we take quite seriously.
So sometimes when the usage of English words is confusing, it’s because there’ s a bit of history behind it, there is a story behind it, so it’s helpful to know the story. Anything to do with the British class system is difficult. Some people would argue that we don’t have [social] classes now. Others would argue that we really do. The good news from your point of view is – and I mean as someone who doesn’t come from the UK at all – you don’t get judged by it, unless you’ve lived here a very long time. If you have an accent which shows that you’re not from the UK, it means you’re exempt, you get a ‘free pass’ so to speak. So it shouldn’t count against you. In that respect, I’m much more likely to be judged by the British social class system than you are, because my accent is slightly northern, and especially if I call my evening meal ‘my tea’!
Anyway, enough for now, have a lovely day. Goodbye!