French Friday: No, souper doesn’t mean “to eat soup”

One of the first subjects covered in most language classes is food. When and where and what do you eat? So the French words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner were pretty well ingrained in my head. Petit dejeuner, dejeuner, et dîner.  So I was a little taken aback on my last trip to French-Canada when I suddenly realized that these meals were all backwards and different. There is no petit dejeuner in Quebec. You have dejeuner in the morning. Dîner actually comes at noontime. And in the evening, les Quebecois souper.

Of course, they’ll know what you want if you ask for petit dejeuner and they’ll probably understand if you want to dîner at night – but they’ll also probably know you’re clearly not a local.

At first I thought this was another one of those strange Quebecois language idiosyncracies. Then I started reading Les Misérables in French (a grand, and likely foolish, undertaking I’ll probably talk about in another post). Wouldn’t you know, there were people souper-ing all over the place. Right there in France!

It turns out, back in the 18th century, everyone who spoke French used souper to speak of the evening meal. Everyone ate dîner at midday, and dejeuner – in the morning – was never petit.

At some point in the 19th century, the language split, and many different French speaking regions began to talk of their meals with different words. You’ll rarely hear someone use souper in Paris anymore, but it’s still common in rural France. And obviously, it’s still the norm in Quebec.

Eating shouldn’t be so complicated!

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