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<   No. 1361   2006-10-18   >

Comic #1361

1 Minnesota Jones: Well you can't shoot us now. It's sunset. That just wouldn't be proper.
2 Haken: We are Nazis! We can shoot you whenever we want!
3 Prof. Jones: I don't suppose there's any chance we could get some dinner first?

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2016-05-06 Rerun commentary: This does raise the question of what happened for lunch.

The answer being, of course, that the Nazis got catering to deliver. Probably some currywurst, since they're in Berlin. Washed down by a nice lager.

The word dinner has and had different meanings throughout history and across English-speaking cultures. Originally it meant "the first meal of the day", which at the time was usually a heavy meal around midday. (Skipping breakfast is apparently not a new phenomenon.)

The meaning then shifted to "the largest meal of the day", which was still the midday meal, as lighter meals were eaten in the morning and evening.

But then as people began eating the main meal of the day later and later, it dragged the word "dinner" along for the ride, so that in most places now "dinner" refers to the evening meal (which is usually the largest meal of the day, with the midday meal becoming a relatively lighter lunch).

Interestingly, "dinner" comes from the Latin dis-ieiunare ("break-fast" - meaning to end a period of not eating), which makes it a cognate of the French "déjeuner" and the Spanish "desayuno". And whereas in English the word has shifted meaning via attachment to "largest meal of the day" to now mean the evening meal; in French the word "déjeuner" has stayed attached to the midday meal (while the qualified "petit déjeuner" [literally: "little breakfast"] refers to actual breakfast)[1]; while in Spanish the word "desayuno" remained attached to the meaning of "first meal of the day", and now refers to breakfast.

So we have three words that all come from the same Latin root, which have evolved in three different languages to refer to three different meals. Ain't linguistics fun?


[1] At least in French French. As a reader kindly pointed out, in Québécois French, "déjeuner" has instead retained the meaning "first meal of the day" and refers to breakfast, while lunch is referred to as "diner". Just to confuse things even more. (And dinner is "souper".)

If you ever want to get email from people from Quebec, simply post something somewhere about the French language. Anything - it doesn't matter what. Someone will mail to let you know that it's different in Quebec.[2] :-)

[2] And Belgium. I was literally typing in the above footnote when another email arrived, this time about Belgian French, which shares the above-mentioned properties of Québécois French with respect to meal names. This correspondent also mentioned the possibility of further fun with Swiss French, but had no first-hand information on that front.

I'm just glad English doesn't have a monopoly on mutual unintelligibility of different national dialects, and that Francophones get to share the fun!

EDIT×2: And just for fun, a couple of readers have enlightened me to the fact that sticking to English things are not always straightforward. In parts of the south-eastern United States the midday meal is still dinner, and the evening meal is supper. And many people in Australia and parts of northern England and Ireland refer to the evening meal as tea. (I heard this a lot as a child, but it seems to have become somewhat restricted to the older generations nowadays, at least in the big Australian cities.)

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