Dinner is a term with several meanings.
Around North America in general, dinner may be a synonym of supper – that is, a large evening meal. However, in parts of Canada and the United States , dinner can be a synonym of lunch, with the evening meal in turn called supper. For the most part these terms only persist in rural areas, particularly in the Southern United States and among older Americans.
In the United Kingdom , dinner traditionally meant the main meal of the day. Because of differences in custom as to when this meal was taken, dinner might mean the evening meal (typically in the higher social classes) or the midday meal (typically in lower social classes, who may describe their evening meal as tea). There is sometimes snobbery and reverse snobbery about which meaning is used. Large formal evening meals are invariably described as dinners (hence, also, the term dinner jacket which is a form of evening dress). School dinners is a British phrase for school lunches.
Ambiguity is often avoided altogether by using lunch for the midday meal and tea or supper for the evening meal, though these terms can also carry their own ambiguities.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word "dinner" referred to breakfast in Middle English. A more formal definition of "dinner", especially outside North America , is any meal consisting of multiple courses. The minimum is usually two but there can be as many as fourteen. Possible courses are:
- Hors d'oeuvres (also known as appetizers, starters)
- Soup course
- Fish course
- Salad course
- Main course (also known as meat course)
- Dessert course (also known as the Sweet or pudding course)
- Cheese course
Some confusion is caused by the word entrée, which is used in North America for the main course, but which was originally one of the earlier courses (most likely the fish course, when the main dish was red meat). In French, les entrées are the appetisers, and entrée is a somewhat pretentious word in Great Britain for the same thing ("starters" is more commonly seen).
Dinner is generally followed by tea or coffee, sometimes served with mint chocolates or other sweets, or with brandy or a digestif. When dinner consists of many courses, these tend to be smaller and to be served over a longer time period than a dinner with only two or three courses. Dinners with many courses tend to occur at formal events such as dinner parties or banquets.
This formal version of the meal is generally served in the evening, starting some time between 7.30 and 8.30 (in the Netherlands typically at 6.00). It may be served at midday or shortly afterwards. However this tends to be more common practice in Scotland than in other countries.
In England during the mid-17th century, dinner was served at any time between 11 am and 12 noon and was a rich, heavy, alcoholic meal that lasted for anything up to 3 or 4 hours. After the meal proper, the men would stay at the table to smoke, chat, and drink, while the women would retire to a boudoir to talk, sew, and brew tea.
Then during the 18th century, dinner was served at a gradually later and later time until by the early 1800s, the normal time was between 7:00 and 8:30 pm and an extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the midday gap.