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Supper is a name for the evening meal in some dialects of English. While often used interchangeably with "dinner" today, supper was traditionally a separate meal. "Dinner" traditionally had been used to refer to the main and most formal meal of the day, which, from the Middle Ages until the 18th century, was most often the midday meal. When the evening meal became the main meal, it was referred to as "dinner", and the lighter midday meal was called "luncheon".
The term is derived from the French souper, which is still used for this meal in Canadian French, Swiss French, and sometimes in Belgian French. It is related to soup. It is also related to the German word for soup, Suppe. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, suggests that the root, sup, retains obscure origins.
Supper may refer to, on largely class-based distinctions, either a late-evening snack (working and middle class usage) or else to make a distinction between "supper" as an informal family meal (which would be eaten in the kitchen or family dining room) as opposed to "dinner"; generally a grander affair (either or both in terms of the meal and the courses within the meal itself), which would be eaten in the best dining room, could well have guests from outside the household, and for which there might be a dress code. It is common for social interest and hobby clubs that meet in the evening after normal dinner hours to announce that "a light supper" will be served after the main business of the meeting. Supper can also refer to the largest meal of the day.
In England and much of Canada, whereas "dinner", when used for the evening meal, is fairly formal, "supper" is used to describe a less formal, simpler family meal. In some areas of the United Kingdom, "supper" is used to describe an evening meal when dinner has been eaten around noon. In some northern British and Australian homes, as in New Zealand and Ireland, "tea" is used for the evening meal. In parts of the United Kingdom, supper is a term for a snack eaten after the evening meal and before bed, usually consisting of a warm, milky drink and British biscuits or cereal, but can include sandwiches.
In Ireland, a "chicken supper" is a meal of chips, gravy, onions, peas, and chicken breast. Similarly in Scotland and perhaps elsewhere in the United Kingdom, such as in Northern Ireland, a fish supper is a portion of fish and chips. The word is used also as a modifier in this way for a range of other similar meals, such as a "sausage supper", "pastie supper", or "haggis supper", and sometimes indicates the presence of chips.
In New Zealand it is similar – generally cake and tea/coffee served later in the evening, particularly when people have visitors.
The distinction between dinner and supper was common in United States farming communities into the twentieth century. In most parts of The United States and Canada today, "supper" and "dinner" are considered synonyms. In Saskatchewan, and much of Atlantic Canada, "supper" means the main meal of the day, usually served in the late afternoon, while "dinner" is served around noon. "Dinner" is used in some areas, such as Newfoundland and Labrador, to describe the noon meal as well as special meals, such as "Thanksgiving Dinner" or "Christmas Dinner", the evening meal being "supper". The word "Supper" is also regionally reserved for harvest meals put on by churches and other community organizations: "Fowl Suppers" or "Fall Suppers" (featuring turkey) are common in Canada, and "Bean Suppers" (featuring baked beans) are common in New England and especially the state of Maine. In addition, the term "supper" is most frequently used in the American South.
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