‘Dinner’ or ‘Supper’?

Jake got called a hillbilly for using the word "supper" instead of "dinner," but that's wrong. "Supper" comes from farming culture.

Mignon Fogarty,
June 11, 2018

Dinner, Supper, and Farming

The roots of the difference go back to farming culture. On farms, dinner was a heavy meal that laborers ate to sustain themselves through a long afternoon. Its use has changed with modern life, but as we’ve seen, it can still suggest a heavy evening meal, while supper can be lighter evening fare.

It’s interesting because the decline of the use of the word “supper” in published books is very similar to the decline in the number of farms in the US according to the US Department of Commerce and the USDA. The charts look similar. Both the use of the word “supper” and the number of farms began to decline around the mid-1930s and continued to decline until about 1975 when they both seemed to level out.

I think it’s fair to say that “supper” means different things to different people these days, and it’s less common than it used to be now that we have fewer farms.

a chart of the decline in the use of the word "supper"


I got curious about Jake’s new chosen word for a meal—“chow”— and it turns out to have a surprising origin. It was originally used to refer to just Chinese food because apparently, Chinese people in California in the 1800s used the phrase “chow-chow” to refer to food, and that eventually got shortened to just “chow” and the meaning expanded in English to include all kinds of food.


Specifically, sources say “chow-chow” came from Chinese pidgin English. A pidgin is a language that develops so that two groups who speak different languages but end up in close proximity to each other can communicate. It’s nobody’s first language, and it’s a simplified language. 

Pidgins often arise when two groups are trying to do business with each other—to trade goods and services, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “pidgin” also arose in the 1800s to describe these kinds of simplified languages and comes from the way Chinese people pronounced the word “business,” or at least the way it sounded to English speakers. “Business” became “bigeon,” which became “pidgin.” So you can think of a pidgin language as a simplified business language that helps different cultures trade with each other.

Thanks again to Jake for the question. I’m sorry people called you a hillbilly. The fact that you use “supper” just means that it’s more likely that you grew up with people or in an area that had a farming history.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.