Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language



Tea, Dinner or Supper?

Vocabulary and Social Class

Of the many indicators of social class in Britain one of the most common is the choice of meals and names for these meals.

It is a source of great confusion for foreign visitors.

Here is the answer as written by Kate Fox in her exquisite book "Watching the English" published by Hodder 2004.

What do you call the evening meal?

And what time do you eat it?

  • If you call it "tea", and eat it at around half past six, you are almost certainly working class or of working class origin. (If you have a tendency to personalize the meal, calling it "my tea", "our/us tea" and "your tea" - as in "I must be going home for my tea", "what's for us tea, love?" or "Come back to mine for your tea" - you are probably northern working class.)
  • If you call the evening meal "dinner", and eat it at around seven o'clock, you are probably lower-middle or middle-middle class.
  • If you normally only use the term "dinner" for rather more formal evening meals, and call your informal, family evening meal "supper" (pronounced "suppah"), you are probably upper-middle or upper class. The timing of these meals tends to be more flexible, but a family "supper" is generally eaten at around half past seven, while a "dinner" would usually be later, from half past eight onwards.

Foreign visitors, and indeed English natives uncertain about the background of their hosts, may find it helpful to check the timing of the meal and treat a general open invitation "oh, come as you please" or "whenever") with caution.

It is not uncommon for English people to use the phrase "come round for a meal" in order to avoid the pitfalls of using vocabulary as a social identifier. A typical evening meal would be held at "8 for 8.30" (you should arrive at 8pm prepared to eat at half past) or "eightish" which is slightly more flexible but amounts to the same thing.

I should add that there is a general belief that traditional family sit down meals are less common nowadays, replaced by meals in front of the television, by a browsing mentality "snacking" from the fridge or the sweet shop, or a series of individual meals taken over a period of time as busy families eat when or where they can before rushing off to some other activity. But that's society not language. You could however look at the implications and origins of the "power snack", "the working breakfast", the "grazing mentality", "brunch" and the "all day breakfast". Not to mention the late night curry....


 See also