I was pondering the words of the old advertising jingle1:
I like a nice cup of tea in the morning,
Just to start the day you see;
And at half past eleven,
Well my idea of heaven,
Is a nice cup of tea.
I like a nice cup off tea with my dinner,
And a nice cup of tea with my tea,
And about this time of night,
What goes down a treat, you’re right,
It’s a nice cup of tea.
As well as the deep truth underlying the words, I suddenly became aware of the beginning of the second stanza: “a nice cup of tea with my dinner, and a nice cup of tea with my tea“.
I’d guess the last part of this may be confusing to a non-UK audience, or it may conjure up images of period-drama afternoon tea with cucumber sandwiches and parasols over a game of croquet.
Now the meaning of ‘dinner’ has been a matter of discussion in my household for years.
When I was a child ‘dinner’ was the light meal in the middle of the day, whereas ‘tea’ was the main meal at around 6 o’clock.
In contrast, Fiona takes a more pragmatic approach: ‘dinner’ is the main meal whether taken midday or in the evening.
My impression is that, when I was a child, this was part of a general class distinction. Posh (middle class) people ate lunch at midday, dinner in the evening, watched BBC and drank coffee. The working class ate dinner at midday, ate tea in the evening, watched ITV (the channel with adverts), and drank tea.
Weirdly in school one had ‘school dinners’ or ‘free dinners’ if on benefits, but had ‘packed lunches’.
We have sometimes discussed whether the tea/dinner distinction was more a Welsh-ism. But the advertising jingle clearly shows it was widespread2.
Now-a-days I tend to use the words rather interchangeably, and certainly happy to use ‘lunch’. Is this because I have become part of the professional classes or a general shift of language?
What do you call meals? Is it the same as when you were little? Is it still a class distinction?
- According to responses in AnswerBank, this was from an original 1937 song for Brook Bond ‘D’ brand … and in fact the word ‘tea’ was replaced by ‘D’ … but I obviously missed this and remember it as ‘tea’! The original lyrics have slightly different final lines, “And when it’s time for bed, There’s a lot to be said, For a nice cup of tea“, or maybe I simply misremembered the advert.[back]
- even in 1937[back]
Certainly dinner/noon tea/evening in my family when growing up in Cheshire.
Still use tea/evening for our kids. Kind of dropped dinner for lunch.
Except professionally for formal University evening events.
Tea was the main evening meal in my part of Scotland too, sometimes followed by a light supper later on..
1960s: Dinner – eaten in middle of day; Tea – evening meal.
Now: at home, dinner and tea used in the same way with family and (some) Scottish friends; but lunch and dinner used outside (in the posh way) otherwise.