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 “dé” + “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