Second Breakfast

The inspiration for this post — believe it or not — was an ultrasound I had yesterday. Don’t worry: It turns out that I’m not pregnant nor do I have an appendicitis or a hernia. What I feared might be a more serious condition was, in fact, just an infection from a ninja spider bite. But that’s a story for another day, because you want to know what in the world that has to do with “second breakfast.”

Well, in preparation for my ultrasound, my doctor instructed me to be “à jeun” for six hours before the procedure. Related to the word “jeûne” (which means “fast” in the sense of not eating), “à jeun” means to be on an empty stomach. Now, I already knew the words “jeun” and “jeûne” (not to be confused with “jeune” meaning “young”), but the whole episode got me thinking again about one of my favorite French words and its relationship to these two:


Most American students of French learn “déjeuner” in the list of vocabulary words relating to food and meals, but we usually don’t learn its etymology. For us, “dîner” just means “dinner,” “déjeuner” just means “lunch,” and “petit déjeuner” just means “breakfast.” And to an anglophone’ who’s translating things word for word, that last one is pretty funny: “little lunch.”

“Ha ha ha! The French are so cute — ‘little lunch‘!”

In reality, though, it’s more accurate to say that “déjeuner” means “breakfast” and “petit déjeuner” means “little breakfast.” Getting back to my ultrasound, the word “déjeuner” is just “” + “jeûner,” literally meaning “to undo or end a fast” (“to break fast”), so as a noun, “déjeuner” is the meal where you do that. Until modern times, in fact, the majority of people in France didn’t even eat a midday meal. “Déjeuner” was their first meal after getting up, followed by dinner at the end of the workday and possibly a light supper (“souper,” from the French for “soup”) before going to bed. Eventually, though, this first “déjeuner” became smaller and was supplemented with an additional, heavier meal around midday. Thus were born the terms “petit déjeuner” or “premier déjeuner” for the morning meal, and “second déjeuner,” “grand déjeuner,” “déjeuner de midi” or “déjeuner-dîner” for the midday meal, which eventually became known as just “déjeuner.”

So, the next time you’re discussing French meals, remember that lunch really means breakfast, and breakfast really means little breakfast, which makes your lunch …

… your second breakfast.

I just knew the Hobbits were French!

P.S. — As with English, regional differences always complicate things. In Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec, Acadia, and certain regions of France, “déjeuner” is still used to refer to breakfast. (May 5 update: See Patricia’s comment below for more info about Quebec.) It’s kind of like the interminable debate in the United States over the proper meaning of “dinner” and “supper.” But that’s a topic for another day … and maybe even another blog!

© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

6 thoughts on “Second Breakfast

  1. France : “Petit-déjeuner” in the morning, “déjeuner” at midday, “dîner” after work.

    Québec : “Petit-déjeuner” or “déjeuner” in the morning, “dîner” (or lunch) at noon, “souper” after work.

    So it became complicated for me to make appointments with my Montreal friend who lives in France also, and my French boyfriend. We end up saying “dîner le midi” and “dîner le soir” or “on mange ensemble demain midi?” (are you free to eat tomorrow at midday?).

    And we didn’t talk about the “apéro”, which is called “cinq à sept” in Québec, which is totally not the same thing in France (see:à_sept). Imagine people overhearing my conversations with my boyfriend (who knows what a 5 à 7 québécois is)…

    I hope you get better soon!

    1. It’s really interesting to me that, in the US, we tend to learn metropolitan French and not Canadian French. Thanks for the info on how it’s said in Quebec; also interestingly, that’s very similar to the Southern tradition in the US to use dinner for the midday meal (increasingly rare, but still very common on weekends) and supper for the evening meal. Goes to support my pet theory that Southern American English preserves many “old-school” language forms in the way that québécois does for French. Also goes to show that the next time I go Montreal, I’ll surely be completely lost! Thanks for the well wishes; everything is better now, so no worries! 🙂

    2. Oh, and there’s “quartre heures” that’s sometimes used for “goûtée” and, of course, “en cas” in the morning between breakfast and lunch. I could write a whole other post about those!

      1. Oh yes, “le quatre-heures” ou “le goûter”, that I always called “la collation” (but you can take a “collation” anytime, not necessarily at 4 PM). The French and the Québécois (and the Americans) don’t eat at the same time anyway. A whole other blog post, you said? 🙂

  2. Yup, a whole other post, I think. It’s funny; the first time I ever heard of “le quatre-heures” was when Michel and I were babysitting our niece and nephew in Lorraine. “Tonton, what are we going to have for le quatre-heures?” Well, needless to say, I fell in love with that tradition! Kind of like “teatime” but with Nutella instead of scones and clotted cream. 😀

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