Edible Linguistics - Some Ideas to Chew On

Monday, March 23, 2009

Doing all my research for this paper about the idea of the meal as symbolic of greater cultural norms and ideas I wanted to find a clear definition of the word and its history. Where did we get the word meal?

Indeed, I could define the word in its modern use easily enough without reference. A meal was the act of sitting down to eat or the actual prepared food itself. Still, historically I couldn't find anything. No Latin root word. No adopted slang from some Celtic tribe or whatnot. It was an linguistic mystery to me, and while I'm sure someone else may have charted it out, I had yet to find that someone or the documentation.

I could find other words, no problem. Supper was easy: "The last meal of the day; (contextually) the hour at which this is taken, supper-time; also, such a meal made the occasion of a social or festive gathering. Often without article, demonstrative, possessive, or the like, esp. when governed by a prep. (to have supper; at, to, for, after supper)" (OED). Supper was the last meal of the day, often far late in the evening between seven to nine. This two hour time span was allowed only to the truly rich who didn't have to work the daily grind; with leisure came the ability to eat at one's own pace. Dinner was taken around five or six in order to entertain guests at the spur of the moment, a luxury of the fashionable and professional classes.

Lunch way back when was actually called dinner. The working classes usually were too busy to sit down to supper so dinner was pushed back until the work shift was over. The more popular and common use of the word dinner to refer to the last meal of the day, when actually it was a delayed midday meal, became the linguistic norm.

As for lunch? The original form of the word lunch was luncheon, which referred to any casual meal throughout the day. As the working class often had to find time in the middle of their shift to take a quick bite, usually around noon, this traditional meal became adopted into popular society and over time was slanged into the word lunch.

This history was all well and good, however meal kept escaping me. Indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary and Oxfrod English both seemed to skirt about the history. However, after plenty of research and some determined pluck I think I pinned down where we actually get the term meal from in our modern vocabulary.

You see the OED noun for meal in the ceommensalitory manner is, "The edible part of a grain or pulse (now usually one other than wheat) ground to powder or granules" (OED). Now the verb form of the word is "to eat a meal, to feed". Stay with me...

Now, E.N. Anderson in his book, Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture, says "perhaps the best-known and longest running case study of change is provided by the case of bread" (171). He notes that bread is a signifier of culture, 40,000 years ago people started grinding cereals into powder, or meal, to bake into various types of breads. This milling was time consuming, requiring the work of many. As the cereals demanded intense labor, many people were brought into the process of creating the meal. Even as technology made processing meal easier it required the skills of many. Thus everyone had to gather for the meal.

As the act of processing meal gave way to machines, the phrase of sitting down to a meal stayed. As such, I propose we get the term meal from this history of bread making.

Anyways, this is simply my own postulating. I haven't had enough time to really delve into this, but I think I might have this right. Any linguists out there are free to correct me. I plan to get more regular posts about cupcakes and stupid people when I can but right now academia has consumed me. At least I found ways to make it food related, maybe by the end of all this I can publish something and become the next Pollan.


  1. Meal is connected to the Dutch maal(tijd) and German Mahl(zeit).(tijd and zeit translate as time, so mealtime)shared Saxon roots. Maal is from etmaal, the period of 24 hours. It has therefore a reference to the time, the moment we eat. According to the etymology books. I find no reference to 'meal' as used for bread, although 'meel' and 'mehl' are derived from the 'malen' (grinding) in the mill, or with millstones. But then, my saxon isn't to good. Might look into History of Saxon Food if you want.
    You might also want to look into Alan Davidsons Oxford Companion to Food. He gives quite a nice list of meals, the history of meals and the number of meals in history. 16th Century, two should do, three a sign of a 'beastly' life (Boorde 1542). Interesting subject innit?

  2. Thanks Lizet! Very helpful, however the OED does reference meal to millet. Albeit a bit more condensed without taking the word to "meel" or "mehl." Still, I think the "meal" still might some partially from "meel" in some slight way. It seems to much of a coincidence otherwise to me. Sadly my local libraries seem to have no copies of the books you mention. Grr.

    Still how does "maal: a 24 hour period" turn into a "time we eat"? There seems to be a step missing that is left very unexplained.

  3. No need to apologize for the skew to academia. Your schooling has an influence on your writing voice and is one of the reasons I love to read your blog. Your musings and meditations on linguistics are just as entertaining as your cafe anecdotes and exotic cupcakes. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I checked in my Old German dictionary, published by the Brothers Grimm, and they assume that the more logical etymology (rather that Lizet's "time", which they mention, too) comes from the old Goth languages in which "mæl" or "mäðel" (and several other spelling versions) meant a getting-together or the place of the getting-together. It was usual (no time mentioned here) that people got together after assemblies, legal disputes or the signing of agreements to have an opulent meal and celebrate the occasion. And with time, the meaning shifted to the eating itself.

    (Those Brothers Grimm had a really queer German, I have difficulties understanding them - even though I'm a German native. But if you need more detailled information I could try to fight my way through it).

    By the way, there is nothing more annoying than working in a German office, sitting down for lunch and having one colleague after another enter the room and say "Maaahlzeit", which is a very popular way of saying "Bon appetit" in German. So annoying!! Luckily, I'm working from home now. ;)


  5. The Grimm brothers dictionary is full of lore and less of science, take care. More reading: Margaret Visser: Much depends on Dinner, and The Rituals of Dinner.
    Indeed the skip from 'etmaal' to 'mahlzeit/maaltijd' is a large one, but the explanation is simple: think of the repeating life of monks, with their praying hours at regular intervals.
    Maal also used as times in two times tow makes four. Twee maal twee is vier. Now that isn't very helpful I know, but, yeah, that's science for you.
    Meal as in flour is in medieval times also written as flower btw.
    It's a pity that my friend of the thousand dictionaries is currently residing in Venice, without her books, she would find the common denominator, somewhere, in the Indo-European language section.
    But keep up the good work, I like the way your tale takes shape.

  6. From the Online Etymology Dictionary (in case you're still curious):
    meal (n.1)
    "food; time for eating," c.1200 (perhaps late Old English), mel "appointed time for eating," also "a meal, feast," from Old English mæl "fixed time, occasion, a meal," from Proto-Germanic *mæla- (cf. Old Frisian mel "time;" Middle Dutch mael, Dutch maal "time, meal;" Old Norse mal "measure, time, meal;" German Mal "time," Mahl "meal;" Gothic mel "time, hour"), from PIE *me-lo-, from root *me- "to measure" (see meter (n.2)). Original sense of "time" is preserved in piecemeal. Meals-on-wheels attested from 1961. Meal ticket first attested 1870 in literal sense of "ticket of admission to a dining hall;" figurative sense of "source of income or livelihood" is from 1899.

    Meal, in the sense of ground grain, stems from Proto-Indo-European's term *mele - to grind, from which we get the modern word mallet.


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