The difference between dinner and supper is a lot like whether you say a “to-ma-to” or ” to-mah-to.” Both are correct, depending on which region of the country you live in. While dinner originally referred to the size and complexity of the meal and supper referred to when it was served, considerable variations in the usage of the two terms exist. Most Americans now refer to the evening meal as dinner – but that wasn’t always the case.
The Largest Meal
According to the Maven’s Word of the Day, an online dictionary from Random House Publishing, the word "dinner" originally referred to the largest meal of the day. In Colonial times, that meant a midday meal. Although it is not known why Colonial housewives served the larger meal at midday, there are two competing theories. One is born of convenience for the cook and the other of the energy needs of the men who performed manual labor to support the family. For the women, the traditional cooks of the family, cooking the largest meal at noontime or in early afternoon took advantage of the already roaring fire started for breakfast and allowed them to complete their cooking tasks before evening fell. For the workers, a large meal at midday provided them with the energy they needed to work throughout the afternoon.
The Evening Meal
By the 20th century, Americans adopted the use of the word "supper" to refer to a lighter evening meal shared by the family. It derives from the Middle English "soper," meaning a light evening meal when dinner is served at midday. This meal often consisted of leftovers from dinner. It alleviated hunger and primed the body for a relaxing evening and restful night’s sleep.
Moving on to the City
Changes in lifestyle soon prompted urban counterparts to adopt the practice of serving a larger meal in the evening when the family arrived home for the night. This shift in eating habits fueled the change from referring to the evening meal as supper and set the stage for calling the evening meal dinner. It also saw the addition of the term "lunch" to refer to a light midday meal.
It’s All Relative
Not all regions of the United States have adapted to referring to dinner as the evening meal. Some areas continue to refer to the midday meal as dinner and the evening meal as supper, while still other areas refer to the midday meal as lunch and the evening meal as supper. Many use the term dinner to refer exclusively to a large formal meal, regardless of when it is served, such as Sunday dinner or a holiday dinner. In many rural areas, the term supper also refers to public suppers or church suppers, typically a potluck affair. In some areas, the terms dinner and supper are used interchangeably to refer to the evening meal. Whether you refer to the evening meal as dinner or supper appears to depend on where you live and the customs in your area.
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