February 20th, 2014


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?