There are many kinds of lunch. There are brown-bag ones, three-martini ones, power ones, and working ones. There are ones “for wimps” and ones for “ladies,” though, alas, there are no “free” ones. As soon as English speakers settled on the term lunch for the midday meal they began using adjectives to describe its different types. Before then—in the 17th and 18th centuries—there were as many words for lunch as there were varieties of it. Below is a lexicon of some of these splendid words.
Now associated with business meetings or the social customs of the 1950s, lunch’s stuffier cousin has humble origins. “As much food as one’s hand can hold,” is Dr. Johnson’s 1755 definition. By 1829, it still had a whiff of vulgarity. “The word lunch is adopted in that ‘glass of fashion,’ Almanacks, and luncheon is avoided as unsuitable to the polished society there exhibited,” wrote Henry Beste.
Nunchion, noontion, noonshyns, noneschenche—there were many spellings for this “noon drink,” none of which survived to the present day despite nuncheon being one of the most popular terms for lunch over several centuries. It was Jane Austen’s preferred term, though she spelled it in a completely original way (as she did almost everything else): noonshine.
What a shame this charming appellation was never as popular as lunch, luncheon, or nuncheon and wasn’t regularly used after the 19th century. As one advocate of nooning declared in 1823, “no refined ear could like the words compounded of unch.”
After this Anglo-Saxon term fell out of use in the 17th century, Alfred Thomas Story made a case for its revival in 1899. “I would rather have words like ‘aunders-meat’ than ‘déjeuner à la fourchette,’” he wrote. “I have no objection to words from foreign sources … but it seems a pity to go over-seas for help when we have such quarries at our feet.”
No actual beavers were harmed in the eating of this meal. It was simply “an afternoon’s luncheon,” according to a children’s spelling dictionary from 1726. Also spelled bever, it comes from the French verb “to drink” because a libation (usually ale or beer) was an important part of beaver—even for children.
Like many a Brit in the 18th century, this English colloquialism for a drink made its way to India, where it found new life as the fashionable term for lunch. By 1869 it had returned home where, according to the publisher and sometimes-pornographer John Camden Hotten, it was “fast losing [its] Slang character” and becoming a “regularly-recognised” English word.
The name for a simple monk’s meal called a collatio entered English by way of French. By 1664, the diarist Samuel Pepys could boast of eating a delicious “collacion of anchovies, gammon, &c.” The term survives in Italy, where colazione means breakfast, except in the north, where it often means lunch.
Knowledge of this chiefly Scottish word allows one to properly interpret a line from Walter Scott’s 1821 novel, The Pirate: “She could not but say, that the young gentleman’s nacket looked very good.” You see, he packed a very fine lunch.
Like twal-hours and nooning, elevener is one of the many words named for the hour at which lunch is eaten. In 1823, Edward Moor included it in a lengthy list of words for lunch that he admitted was (like this list) incomplete: “There may—mercy on us ! be others of which I have not heard.”