Hungry, anyone? The New York Public Library currently has a fascinating exhibit about the history of lunch in New York. It includes the background of the power lunch, the 3-cent school lunch, and such iconic emblems as the sidewalk cart, the Automat, the deli, the diner, the hot dog, the soft pretzel, and hot pastrami. It also devotes a panel to the origin of the word lunch, which, as it turns out, is rather complicated.
The word can be found in English literature as early as 1591, but with a different meaning than it has today. A Spanish dictionary of that year lists lunch as the meaning of the Spanish lunja, literally a “loin” or “a hunk of ham or bacon.”
Etymologists believe that the modern meaning of lunch derived from luncheon, which appears in print eleven years earlier, in 1580, with a similar meaning, in this case a “hunk of cheese.” Luncheon is believed to have its root in nuncheon, a corruption of nonechenche, from the Latin nonus (“noon”) and Old English scenc (“to pour out” or “to drink”).
Other wordsmiths point to the German non lunchentach, meaning a noon drink of ale, usually with bread.
By 1660 luncheon was used to mean any noontime meal, probably consisting of bread and cheese or other light fare. The shorter form of lunch developed later and was regarded as vulgar.
In his 1755 Dictionary of English Language, Samuel Johnson defines lunch as “As much food as one’s hand can hold.” He suggests it comes from the word clutch or clunch, although he also includes a possible derivation from the Spanish louja [sic].
In its present sense of a meal at midday, lighter and less formal than an evening dinner, the first usage of lunch found by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1829, although the Online Etymological Dictionary finds lunch as both verb and noun, meaning “a light meal” or “to partake” of it, as early as William Davies’ 1786 play The Mode, in which this racy dialogue appears:
MRS. PRATTLE: I always to be sure, makes a point to keep up the dignity of the family I lives in. Would you take a more solid refreshment?—Have you lunch’d, Mr. Bribe?”
MR. BRIBE: Lunch’d O dear! Permit me, my dear Mrs. Prattle, to refresh my sponge, upon the honey dew that clings to your ravishing pouters. O! Mrs. Prattle, this shall be my lunch. (He kisses her).
With such usage it should come as no surprise that lunch was still regarded as a vulgarism as late as the 1820s. Brunch, by the way, a portmanteau word combining breakfast and lunch, wasn’t used until 1896.
All the Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows about lunch is that there is no such thing as a free one, although he keeps looking.
Last week I had this great hunch
I knew how I could get a free lunch
(So it goes).
Having eaten my fill,
I just tore up the bill!
But the waiter then gave me a punch
(In the nose).