Monday 29 August 2005
Miles Kington: The naked truth about that tricky midday meal
Very posh people say 'luncheon', but for the most part it is a tussle between 'lunch' and 'dinner'
Déjeuner doesn't mean "picnic". It means "lunch".
And yet she was definitely a French woman, and therefore knew very well what "déjeuner" meant, and had still deliberately chosen to avoid using the word "lunch".
On the other hand, she is the only person in the history of the world I have ever heard trying to translate the name of the painting, so it was fairly virgin territory. It is always referred to in English by its French name, surely. We always call it Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe.
She may have been trying to accommodate her British hosts by giving us an English title, but she was wandering innocently into very dangerous territory because to this day the British have never quite made up their minds what the midday meal should be called, and would rather call it Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe in French than have to make up their minds in English what meal is actually being taken by that naked lady and her two fully clothed companions.
It's a class thing, of course. Posh people say "lunch" and not so posh people say "dinner". Very, very posh people say luncheon (and I see now that the Manet painting is occasionally listed as "Luncheon on the Grass") and people do still exchange Luncheon Vouchers, but they are outsiders in this matter, which for the most part is a tussle between those people who say "lunch" and those people who say "dinner". The "lunch break" comes at the end of the morning, and is so referred to in Test matches. But the "dinner break" comes at the same time, especially in schools, and the matter has never been finally decided.
My mother had no doubts at all. She was, I have to admit, the sort of mother who liked her children to use the posh words, so my brother and I were trained to say "lunch". I still do.
And I think "lunch" is winning the long sordid struggle, because we talk about "ladies who lunch" and not "dames who dine", and William Burroughs did not write "The Naked Dinner" but "The Naked Lunch" (which actually would be quite a good translation for Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe) and the film was called Guess Who's Coming to Dinner because it was definitely an evening meal ...
"Lunch" has also received a helping hand in this matter from "breakfast". How so? Because when you have a meal which takes place half way in between breakfast and lunch, or is a combination of the two, it is not called "brinner"; it is called "brunch", from "breakfast+lunch". When I first heard about "brunch", I never took it very seriously, partly because it was a silly name, partly because I couldn't see the need for it, but the first (and only) time that I sat in the sunshine at a pavement café in New York eating eggs Benedict and drinking a Bloody Mary, I was quickly converted.
And now brunch, as a meal, seems to be here to stay, whether for people who get up too late on Sunday to take breakfast or for people who need an excuse to get started on a Bloody Mary before midday. And brunch has also achieved one thing that the other meals have not: being of American origin, "brunch" has the priceless advantage of coming without British class overtones.
The only thing that "brunch" has not achieved is to worm its way into the titles of paintings, books or plays. No "Naked Brunch". No "Brunch at Tiffany's". No "Long Dark Brunch of the Soul", even. But give it time, give it time.
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