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
- 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”)
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
PS I have a copy of Watching the English by Kate Fox for anyone who would like it. Janet