Dinner usually refers to the most significant meal of the day, which can be at noon or in the evening. However, the term “dinner” can have different meanings depending on culture, as it may mean a meal of any size eaten at any time of day. Historically, it referred to the first meal of the day eaten around noon, and is still sometimes used for a noon-time meal, particularly if it is a large or main meal. In many parts of the Western world, dinner is taken as the evening meal.
The word is from the Old French (c. 1300) disner, meaning “dine”, from the stem of Gallo-Romance desjunare (“to break one’s fast”), from Latin dis- (which indicates the opposite of an action) + Late Latin ieiunare (“to fast”), from Latin ieiunus (“fasting, hungry”).The Romanian word dejun and the French déjeuner retain this etymology and to some extent the meaning (whereas the Spanish word desayuno and Portuguese desjejum are related but are exclusively used for breakfast). Eventually, the term shifted to referring to the heavy main meal of the day, even if it had been preceded by a breakfast meal (or even both breakfast and lunch).
In Europe, the fashionable hour for dinner began to be incrementally postponed during the 18th century, to two and three in the afternoon, until at the time of the First French Empire an English traveler to Paris remarked upon the “abominable habit of dining as late as seven in the evening”. Dinners in the evening became more common in the 1700s, due to developments in work practices, lighting, financial status, and cultural changes.
In many modern usages, the term dinner refers to the evening meal, which is now often the most significant meal of the day in English-speaking cultures. When this meaning is used, the preceding meals are usually referred to as breakfast, lunch and tea.
The divide between different meanings of “dinner” is not cut-and-dried based on either geography or socioeconomic class. However, the use of the term dinner for the midday meal is strongest among working-class people, especially in the English Midlands, North of England and the central belt of Scotland. Even in systems in which dinner is the meal usually eaten at the end of the day, an individual dinner may still refer to a main or more sophisticated meal at any time in the day, such as a banquet, feast, or a special meal eaten on a Sunday or holiday, such as Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving dinner. At such a dinner, the people who dine together may be formally dressed and consume food with an array of utensils. These dinners are often divided into three or more courses. Appetizers consisting of options such as soup or salad, precede the main course, which is followed by the dessert.