Life on the Dinner-Supper line

Everybody eats. Not everybody does it the same way. And still more call the same meal by different names.

So, my whole life I’ve eaten something called “breakfast” in the morning, a word derived from “to break a fast,” or end a period without food. At midday, I eat something called “lunch,” short for “luncheon.”

And then in the evening I eat … “supper.” Or is it “dinner?” My family always used the words interchangeably, though my wife calls it dinner and thus I have been leaning that way, too.

But I’m starting to understand why the meal’s name has befuddled me so.

Nikhil Sonnad of the digital news site Quartz wrote about a database of the top 100,000 words used on Twitter to determine usage around the United States. The results reveal some of the cultural terms and dialect found throughout the nation.

One of the comparisons that stood out was the aforementioned divide between people who call the evening meal “Dinner” and those who call it “Supper.” Both are common in the United States, but fall into distinct regions.

Well, it turns out that the great dinner/supper divide tears Minnesota in two. In fact, I’ve spent my whole life straddling the line, though St. Louis County (and my wife’s birthplace of Northern Illinois) fall squarely in Dinner Nation.

Here’s the map for “Dinner”:


Here’s the map for “Supper”:

This doesn’t explain the fact that you still run across people who call lunch “dinner.” That’s another regionalism, found especially in the South.

My family has a variation on this that either has something to do with our Midwestern roots or our family history of alcoholism. When the extended family gathers for a holiday or just some random Sunday, we have a big meal around 2 p.m. called “Supper.”

I could never understand why we break the normal meal schedule. You end up going into the meal hungry as hell and then you eat your eyes shut. But that’s how it’s done. I think it had more to do with finding the sweet spot between “he’s still hungover” and “he’s starting to drink again” that so vexed the women of my family.

Anyway, tradition is tradition. Dinner is supper. Supper is dinner. Eat and be merry!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make …

Macaroni and Cheese!


  1. Another regional variance in language is what you call pop or soda.

    When you serve in the military, live all over the place and integrate with people from all over the country you discover these things.

    And those fellows from Louisiana used to call 40 degrees “cold.” That was always worth a laugh.

  2. David Sturrock says

    After being raised in the South then living in California for 40-plus years my mom gradually shifted from “supper” to “dinner” when speaking of the evening meal. Here in Southwest Minnesota, many folks, especially those who grew up on a farm, still speak of the midday meal as “dinner.” In any case, I hope everyone enjoyed the mac and cheese!

  3. Once upon a time, a long time ago, my boss’s grand kid told me that “only poor people” call it supper. Uh huh.

  4. Here’s another take. In upstate NY I learned that dinner is the main meal of the day, no matter what time it is. Supper is always at night, so on days when you invite friends or relatives for dinner at 1 p.m., you can also be hungry in the evening and have supper. I use supper at home more now, and think of dinner only as a bigger, more formal meal; and I invite friends to dinner, not supper, no matter what time of afternoon or evening.

  5. To my mind, the dinner/supper issue relates to farming.

    Historically, many people doing farm work would break for a large meal around noon. They had often been up and doing heavy work for six or more hours by then, and had worked up an appetite, and were planning on working another six or more hours before their next meal. Consequently, many farm noontime meals were large, featuring hot meat, potatoes, vegetables, and desert.

    That would often be called dinner.

    The evening meal then became supper, and was often somewhat lighter, since the workers would be heading for bed by eight or nine in order to get enough sleep to rise at five to go through the cycle again.

    Lunch was more of a city thing, with workers there not able to get home at noon, and bringing sandwiches or other things like that for their noon meal, carried to work in “lunch pails.”

    My farmer grandparents would flip this distinction in the winter, when work was lighter because the fields were empty. Then the noon meal was often lighter, and called lunch, with the dinner in the evening.

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