During the 7.5 years they’ve lived in England, Zoe and Irene have been invited by their classmates for dinner, supper and tea, and have puzzled over the difference.
The words are class-indicators, we’ve said, and not wanted to spell it out further, lest they helpfully repeat our rough class guide to their classmates.
Kate Fox in her 2004 book, Watching the English, sorts out the confusion,
One of the most common indicators of social class in Britain is the name and times of meals.
The evening meal:
- 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 class.
- 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.
Both girls are out this evening, incidentally, at friends’ houses. One is having tea, one is having supper, and I shall keep this linguistic post to myself 🙂