I got a telephone call recently that spun me back through two decades. It came in the form of an old friend from London, now residing in Suffolk, who invited me down to his part of the world to ‘do lunch’. I had not heard the phrase used as an active verb since the last time Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was visited upon the financial markets at the end of the eighties. I remember far too well, the birth of the yuppie and the accompanying aggressive financial markets that promised riches in eternity for us all, breakfasts consisted of Grand Cru Champagne and afternoon tea was a cocktail of leisure drugs with a Capuccino chaser. Lunch was where you did deals, not eat. I also recollect that within a few years you couldn’t give your Porsche, or indeed your Dockland’s apartment away, for love let alone money. Somehow we all seemed to have run out of the non-sequential folding stuff once again, and eating out or doing lunch, was one of the many casualties.

In my youth I was packed off to a reasonably good school where gowned masters – no strangers to the joys of corporal punishment – happily exercised their uncertain powers every time we were unable to recount Latin declensions, French grammar or the complete works of Shakespeare.  I was painfully taught that precise definition and grammatical accuracy were paramount for all and every application, yet one irony constantly tested this youthful mind.

Difficult pinning down the derivation of the word lunch, or luncheon as it was originally known in refined nineteenth century circles, but it was universally understood to be taken somewhere between breakfast in the morning, and dinner in the evening. So why on earth were we always summoned to eat it at midday by the school dinner bell?  Why our bevy of merciless language masters ever let this one through the net, still puzzles me to this day. If you could circumvent the apparent timing of meals as well as their nomenclature, why bother with a double period of History or Language lessons at all? Having to spend the best part of fifteen years responding to a dinnertime set twice in each and every day, left me handicapped in many essential social graces that were later to become such burdens in life. Day pupils living locally, could circumvent such traumas and arrive with their own packed lunch, and although they would still eat it at dinner time like everyone else, they instinctively knew where they stood in the modern world – just ask one or two of our new cabinet ministers.

Overcoming insuperable issues can define a person and affect their surrounding cultures. Breakfast, which in France was originally called déjeuner, slowly moved forward and became a meal served at lunchtime, normally around 12.30 pm. This left an early morning gap which the French neatly filled with a new definition, that of petit déjeuner, the logic is faultless and could only prosper in a nation fixated by mealtimes. The Americans on the other hand, decided that breakfast was clearly not enough calorific intake to see them through until lunchtime, promptly invented a merger of the two words, i.e. brunch, now taken at around eleven in case anyone was flagging due to insufficient nourishment. Across the British Isles, supper in some counties is eaten at dinner time, dinner can be re-named tea in Cumbria and many time-warped eateries will provide breakfast all day.

Lunch, thankfully, is still practised here in the U.K. but its significance has changed out of all recognition during the last two centuries. In the nineteenth, it became a fashionable high spot as the time between breakfast and dinner was extended by the rich who felt the need for some small, additional repast to bridge their playful social gap, whereas in the twentieth century it formed an important part of labour relations and offered a natural and essential break to working procedures during the course of a day.

Conscious of such inherited habits I still find lunch the most enjoyable meal of the day. Somehow taking lunch, with company or perhaps more guiltily alone, feels more like truancy than sustenance. Dinner never holds such concerns, a meal at the end of a hard-worked day is a deserved reward for ones labours, a time where the family or invited guests dine together or where the tired and world-weary can relax. It has a rightful place as the sun leaves the sky and the day turns to night and one’s thoughts plan the certainty of new day ahead. Lunch is far more anarchic, something we Protestant Brits feel is a little Mediterranean, a touch foreign, solely pleasurable, thoroughly self indulgent and therefore reluctantly enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. Even Sunday lunch is often seen as illicit and wasteful, over indulgence when there is house work to do, cars to wash, marathons to be run or empires to be conquered.


Just ask our two new Prime Ministerial schoolboys, both of whom were brought up to the sound of the dinner bell at lunchtime and supper served at tea-time, how their fortunes have been influenced by  cultural definition. Nick and David now govern our country as a same-sex partnership. It just goes to show that how we name things, can change lives.