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Brunch Hunch
The other day I picked up a copy of Tolkien's Mr Bliss in a street market. It's a tale Tolkien wrote for his children (with illustrations), and tells of a man's misadventures with a motor car, cabbages and bears - always an unlucky combination. The book is a facsimile.

For readers of Tolkien's more famous works perhaps the most obviously pluckable plum is the mention of a character called "Gaffer Gamgee". But what caught my attention was a reference to a meal known as "brunch". I know the word, of course, but somehow I'd always thought of it as a) American and b) belonging to the last 60 years or so. What was it doing in a book written by an Oxford don in the early 1930s?

The OED tells me plainly that I was wrong, and that the word is not only British, but specifically Oxford university slang. The earliest citation is from Punch, August 1896: "An excellent portmanteau word..indicating a combined breakfast and lunch. At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination-meal, when nearer the usual breakfast hour, is ‘brunch’, and when nearer luncheon, is ‘blunch’."

So, brunch is less fast-talking Wall Street types who don't have time to eat two meals when one will do, more a portmanteau word a la Lewis Carroll, suitable for the use of dons who can't be arsed to get up before 10.30am. I must rearrange my word-hoard display cabinet slightly, to reflect the new information.

Interestingly, neither brunch nor blunch makes the list of meals that hobbits are accustomed to in Peter Jackson's film of The Fellowship of the Ring, which itself derives from Tolkien's saying that they like "six meals a day" when they can get it. Jackson's list consists (as far as the morning is concerned) of breakfast, second breakfast and elevenses. Breakfast and second breakfast are both canonical (Bilbo settles down to "a nice little second breakfast" in The Hobbit), and elevenses is of course universal throughout the civilized world. (Having said which, the word has a rather Gollumy sibilance that I've never noticed till now.) But brunch features in neither book nor film. Perhaps Tolkien felt it was just a bit too obviously Oxonian?

Fascinating - thanks.

Interesting! Now I'm pondering the question of whether "brunch" somehow travelled from Oxford to the US or whether it spontaneously arose on both sides of the Pond at different times. It is a fairly obvious portmanteau word after all.

It could easily have been invented more than once, I agree. Do I take it that you shared my sense of its being a US word?

Until you posted about spotting the word in Tolkien's book, I would have said it was definitely a US word and fairly recent import at that. I don't think I'd noticed the word before the 80s and, like you, associate it with power meetings over coffee and donuts (spelling deliberate!).

No, the meal called "second breakfast" is not Tolkien-canonical.

Explanation in numbing detail.

I see the distinction you're making, and I'm semi-persuaded, but I'm not sure it's quite as hard and fast as you're making it. Between the regular, capitalized Second Breakfast (not that I capitalized it, of course) and a one-off, ad hoc meal taken due to a rare or perhaps unique set of circumstances, there seems to me to be room for quite a range of possibilities.

Hobbits might have second breakfasts under other circumstances, we just never see them doing it. But there is still a huge, yawning chasm between saying, "I'm having a nice little second breakfast" and having a meal called second breakfast, even if you don't capitalize it.

I guess the best way to express the difference is, book-second-breakfast is a creative excuse to get yourself something more to eat. Movie-second-breakfast is an expected, regular event. "Six meals a day, when they could get them," means lots of creative excuses.

I know that inviting people for tea, as a regular, pre-planned food event, is common in the UK. What about elevenses? The impression I get is that that's not a regular meal of the kind tea assumes to be; it's more like, you decide semi-impulsively to have a mid-morning snack to tide you over till lunch, and you call it elevenses. Or it may be something you do daily, but you don't think of it as a meal. From the evidence at hand, a hobbit having a second breakfast (note also the indefinite article: very important) is more of that impulsive kind.

Edited at 2014-02-21 04:48 pm (UTC)

Of course I went to read it. ;)

The thing is, like someone else on there, I remember associating Second Breakfast with hobbits long before the movie. My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was about five, and we developed a long tradition of Second Breakfast 'like a hobbit'--I don't know where he got it from (perhaps the same mysterious source that the commenter did) but it was a good twenty years before the films came out, so it wasn't Peter Jackson. Quite probably just differences in interpretation of the text.

It's possible for other people to misread the text the same way that Jackson did. I just think it's rare. Jackson is an extremely creative misreader.

Fair enough! Under the circumstances I shall cling to any misreading so attached to happy childhood memories. Others' mileage may vary as always!

I didn't know the origin--I always thought it was a British word, but even in its American sense, I would never have thought of it in connection with Wall Street types! Upper Fifth Avenue, maybe--brunch is after all a leisurely meal, which probably starts with mimosas and is shared by ladies with pearl necklaces. Wall Street fast-talkers would never have the time for something as languid as a brunch, but would surely be more likely seen scarfing down takeaway coffees and sending interns out for donuts?

I agree -- it's leisurely -- and also, it's associated with weekends, not weekdays.

but even in its American sense, I would never have thought of it in connection with Wall Street types!

Agreed. Brunch around here is a weekend meal with its own menu, combining breakfast foods served well into the afternoon with the lighter items off a lunch or, if they could double as appetizers, dinner menu—it's not that you can't eat a very substantial brunch, but it leans much more toward waffles, hashes, and sandwiches than anything that could be served as a main course. I didn't grow up thinking it was a meal especially associated with cocktails, but I've seen restaurants serve mixed drinks for brunch that they don't at any other time of day. Dim sum for brunch is a specialized tradition and I have no idea if it's a Chinese custom or just something that happened with Chinese restaurants in America. "Sunday brunch" is also a thing, but I don't know as much about it.

The cocktails thing might be a West Coast thing. There's a restaurant in Eugene that has mimosas and bellinis on special on Saturday and Sunday from breakfast till 4pm, for instance--or maybe that is for 'Sunday Brunch' since that's when I've been most used to having it? I haven't seen the dim sum, but that is interesting (and sounds awesome).

But yeah, basically, this. Especially the waffles and hashes and such.

(Deleted comment)
Dim Sum for brunch is a Hong Kong thing, not sure about mainland China.


Thanks for the info - it seems that I've been misjudging the meal all these years!

I always thought brunch was a modern Americanism too. Huh.

A wonderful word-find!

I think of brunch as a meal eaten in lieu of both breakfast and lunch. Hobbits need lots of meals, not ones which encompass several in one swoop.

a meal eaten in lieu of both breakfast and lunch

You're right, of course. Hobbits would no doubt take it in addition.

"An excellent portmanteau word..indicating a combined breakfast and lunch. At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination-meal, when nearer the usual breakfast hour, is ‘brunch’, and when nearer luncheon, is ‘blunch’."

So does "linner" actually exist, or did my grandmother just invent that?

That sounds like high tea to me!


By the way, another portmanteau word of the same kind as "brunch", and invented by an Oxford don of just a slightly earlier generation, is "chortle".

Yes, once the word is reframed as University slang, Carroll's name comes straight to mind. I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to have coined it.

tangentially, my flatmate and I used to call brunch 'lunkfast', and if we didn't manage to eat lunch till about after four, we called that meal 'linner'. if that were the first meal of the day, then we called it 'blinner'. ah, the student life.

I rather like "lunkfast". Unless you're secretly sovay's grandmother, "linner" appears to have been invented twice - so it's plausible the same thing happened to brunch.



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