NYPL Exhibitions

The Evolution of the Word “Lunch”

The English word “lunch” probably derives from the Spanish lonja, meaning “a thick piece” or a chunk. Samuel Johnson, whose 1755 dictionary has been one of the most influential in the English language, supplied a more picturesque definition: “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”


Noah Webster, the great American lexicographer, used Johnson’s definition in his early dictionaries but eventually added nuances that were particularly American. In his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, Webster defined lunch as “a portion of food taken at any time, except at a regular meal.” The chief characteristic of lunch was no longer the size of the portion but rather its place among the day’s meals. In 1848 Webster situated lunch more precisely as “a slight repast between breakfast and dinner.”