Thursday, February 14, 2013

Luncheon vs. lunch: the fight that fizzled

For a few more days, readers within striking distance of the New York Public Library* can see its delightful exhibit "Lunch Hour NYC."  The project explores the city’s enthusiastic embrace, in the 19th century, of the newly speeded-up midday meal -- the "quick-lunch" -- and the many variations New Yorkers have since rung on the theme. (There's also an informative website.)

And yes, of course there’s a language angle. At the entrance to the exhibit is a case displaying two historic dictionaries -- Samuel Johnson’s 1755 magnum opus and Noah Webster’s 1828 edition -- open to the definition for lunch. Johnson gives the nouns lunch and luncheon a joint entry, with the etymological note “Minshaw derives it from louja, Spanish; Skinner from kleinken, a small piece, Teutonick.” But he thinks “It probably comes from clutch or clunch,” and defines it as “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”

Johnson's lunch, however, was not our midday meal; it was simply a hunk of meat or cheese or bread. Even in 1828, Webster was still defining lunch and luncheon as more a snack than a meal; only in the 1848 edition did it become “a slight repast between breakfast and dinner.”

Luncheon had been used to refer to a meal since the 17th century, but the dictionaries' treatment of lunch and luncheon as synonyms seems not to have bothered people for most of the 19th century. The OED’s first cite for lunch, in fact, suggests that London's smart set liked the shorter term: "The word lunch is adopted in that 'glass of fashion,' Almacks [a popular club], and luncheon is avoided as unsuitable to the polished society there exhibited," reported Henry Best in 1829. 

But by the end of the century, some American word watchers (and some etiquette mavens) were trying to pick a fight over lunch.  "This word, when used as a substantive, may at the best, be accounted an inelegant abbreviation of luncheon," wrote Alfred Ayres in "The Verbalist" (1881). "The dictionaries barely recognize it." 

Ambrose Bierce banned lunch in "Write It Right" (1909), as did newspaper editor Robert Ransom in his 1911 usage guide. Josephine Turck Baker, in "The Correct Word, How to Use It" (1920), claimed that luncheon was "the preferred form of the noun, lunch being properly restricted to express action; 'Luncheon is ready;' 'They lunched on crackers and cheese.'"

Maybe these complainers thought (wrongly) that lunch was an American barbarism; many usages were condemned on no better grounds. But their grumbling had no effect. Luncheon was fine for a fancier affair, but nobody was prepared to abandon plain lunch. As a peeve,  this one finishes way back in the pack, not remotely a contender for the Peevy Award.

And anyone who visits "Lunch Hour NYC" will understand why; the Automat was a wonderful invention, but nobody plucking a meal from its shiny compartments would be tempted to call that meal "luncheon." 

*It's at the so-called main branch, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street., through Sunday (Feb. 17).  For me, "main branch" is unsettlingly oxymoronic; don't most systems have a main library and branch libraries


Unknown said...

You've got to love the bare passives in statements like "the preferred form is x". They pretty much always mean "I prefer form x". It's a nice way to make it look like there's consensus rather than just the commentator's preference.

John Cowan said...

The peevers are definitely out to luncheon on this one.

Bryan White said...

"Luncheon" sounds like something put together by high society ladies in wide-brimmed hats, an event where they'll be serving cucumber sandwiches. Maybe some funds will be raised or something.

I think I'll pass and eat the leftover pizza I brought for lunch.

John Burgess said...

Now, now... We can't have some librarians feeling superior to others just because of geography.

Philip Nast said...

Luncheon is a word I would expect Bertie's Aunt Agatha, the nephew-crusher, to use.