Lunch and luncheon have a very confused etymology. One might think that luncheon is the original, and that lunch is a clipping of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Both words originally referred to a hunk or thick slice of food, often bread or cheese. The common view is that lunch came first and that it evolved from lump, in an analogous fashion to hump and hunch and bump and bunch. Luncheon is an extension of the shorter word. Then sometime in the eighteenth century the shorter word disappeared, only to pop up again a few decades later as a clipping of luncheon. But this common view is by no means certain, as the early history of the words is thoroughly confused.
The first recorded appearance of lunch is in Richard Percival’s 1591 Spanish–English dictionary, in which he defines lonja de tocino as “a lunch of bacon.” One might think that the English lunch is related to the similar Spanish lonja, except that luncheon appears some eleven years earlier than lunch, this time in a French–English dictionary. In his 1580 The Treasurie of the French Tong, Claudius Hollyband defines the French lopin as “a lumpe, a goblet, a luncheon.” Even though luncheon appears earlier in the record, an eleven-year difference across a span of more than four centuries is not that great, and the shorter lunch is likely the original form. The bottom line is we don’t know which came first, but the best guess is that it was lunch.
We do know that it was luncheon that was first used in the sense of a mid-day or informal meal. It is logical that a word for a hunk of bread or cheese would be extended to a meal that featured those foodstuffs, and by 1652 playwright Richard Brome in his A Madd Couple Well Matcht could have one of his characters refer to “Noonings, and intermealiary Lunchings.” It was not until the early nineteenth century that the shorter lunch started to be used for the midday meal. The verb to lunch also appears about that time. For many years calling this repast lunch was considered to be somewhat vulgar and plebian. Even today, luncheon carries a more formal connotation than does lunch.
Luncheon was also influenced by the older nuncheon, referring to a drink or light snack in the afternoon. Nuncheon is recorded from the mid-thirteenth century and comes from noon + scenc (drink), both roots going back to Old English. The shorter form nunch is also found in various British dialects. But whether luncheon/lunch was formed in imitation of nuncheon/nunch, or the clipping to nunch taking place in imitation of lunch is not known. The influence could have flowed in either direction.
So what do we know? Both lunch and luncheon appear at the end of the sixteenth century with the meaning of a hunk of food. It’s possible that lunch was influenced, or even borrowed from, the Spanish lonja, but there is little evidence for this other than the early dictionary definition. The more likely explanation is that it comes from lump. Luncheon is used in the sense of a midday meal within a century of the word’s coinage, and our modern use of lunch in this sense is a nineteenth-century clipping of luncheon.
“lunch, n.2,” “luncheon, n.,” lunch, v.,” “nuncheon, n.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton