What’s the difference between supper and dinner? The stories behind these meals

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What’s the difference between supper and dinner? Really, the answer comes down to who you ask.

The dictionary is diplomatic in its explanation of the two terms: “In parts of the United States, supper and dinner are used interchangeably to describe an evening meal. Some, though, consider dinner to be a midday meal (much like lunch) and supper to be the evening meal.”

To really understand this, the Harvard Dialect Study did a deep dive in 2003, asking 30,934 participants a series of questions about how they pronounce dozens of words and how they use various terms.  The results are mapped out to show regional variations. For example, sweetened carbonated beverages are most commonly called soda, but those in the Midwest might call them pop and Southerners may simply refer to them as Coke.

In all, there were 122 questions asked in the Harvard study. One of them zeroes in on the mealtime debate, asking: “What is the distinction between supper and dinner?” There was no clear consensus, though the most popular response — which about one third of those asked chose — was that dinner and supper were essentially synonyms.

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The study also found that about one third of people who responded don’t use the term “supper,” while more than 99 percent of those asked do use the term “dinner.” Here’s a more detailed look at how people responded to the question in Harvard’s study:

  • Supper is an evening meal, while dinner is eaten earlier (lunch; for example): 7.79 percent
  • Supper is an evening meal, dinner is the main meal: 7.76 percent
  • Dinner takes place in a more formal setting than supper: 12.12 percent
  • There is no distinction; they both have the same meaning 34.56 percent
  •  I do not use the term supper: 33.14 percent
  •  I don’t use the term dinner: 0.82 percent
  •  Other: 3.83 percent

So, where did these two terms come from?

Supper comes from Old French soper meaning “evening meal,” explains Carrie Gillon, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics and runs a podcast about linguistic discrimination. It meant the last meal of the day, and, for some, still carries that meaning. “Some people consider it to be less formal than dinner,” Gillon adds.

Dinner also can be traced back to Old French, with disner meaning “take the first meal of the day,” or “breakfast,” explains Gillon.

OK, things just got crazy. Dinner was once breakfast?!

Yup. Breakfast was once considered the day’s main meal because famers had to load up on food before working the land, Gillon says.

Getty, Sean Gallup

Now, if you’re a real word nerd, you can track word data on Google Ngram, which shows how often words are used in books. The word “supper” has been on the decline since the beginning of the 1900s. Meanwhile, lunch and breakfast have been on the upswing.

So, do you distinguish between the terms supper and dinner? How do you define them?

Curiosity, Food
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About the Author
Brittany Anas
Hi, I'm Brittany Anas (pronounced like the spice, anise ... see, that wasn't too embarrassing to say, now was it?) My professional writing career started when I was in elementary school and my grandma paid me $1 for each story I wrote for her. I'm a former newspaper reporter, with more than a decade of experience Hula-hooping at planning meetings and covering just about every beat from higher-education to crime to science for the Boulder Daily Camera and The Denver Post. Now, I'm a freelance writer, specializing in travel, health, food and adventure.

I've contributed to publications including Men's Journal, Forbes, Women's Health, American Way, TripSavvy, Eat This, Not That!, Apartment Therapy, Denver Life Magazine, 5280, Livability, The Denver Post, Simplemost, USA Today Travel Tips, Make it Better, AAA publications, Reader's Digest, Discover Life and more. Visit Scripps News to see more of Brittany's work.

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