Q: I came across “nuncheon” in my paperback of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It apparently refers to a meal of some sort, and I wonder if it’s a misprint for “luncheon.”
A: No, “nuncheon” is an actual word—an archaic term that’s heard now only in regional dialects in England. It refers to a between-meals snack, not a regular meal like “luncheon.”
The word, spelled “noonschench” when it showed up in the Middle Ages, began as a compound of elements meaning “noon” and “drink.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nuncheon” as “a drink taken in the afternoon; a light refreshment between meals; a snack.”
While it seems to have meant a drink early on, in later citations it clearly meant a snack, taken in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a medieval account book of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. A Latin entry, dated circa 1260-75, includes the Middle English “noonschench.”
For centuries, as OED citations show, it was spelled many different ways: “nonesenches,” “nunseynches,” “nunchions,” “noonshun,” “noonchin,” “nunchun,” and others. The spelling with the “-eon” ending was likely influenced by the old words “puncheon” and “truncheon,” Oxford says.
Jane Austen spelled it “noon-chine” in her novel Sense and Sensibility (1811): “I left London this morning at eight o’clock, and the only ten minutes I have spent out of my chaise since that time, procured me a noon-chine at Marlborough.”
However, editions of Sense and Sensibility published since Austen’s death in 1817 usually spell the word either “nuncheon” or “nunchion.”
Robert Browning spelled it “nuncheon” in his poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842): “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, / Breakfast, dinner, supper, luncheon!”
And the OED has this example from A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Wiltshire (1893), by George Edward Dartnell and Edward Hungerford Goddard:
“About Salisbury Nuncheon is between 10 and 10.30 a.m., and again at 4 p.m., and is a very small meal.”
Why did the word fall out of everyday use? Our guess is that it was no longer needed, or that the British replaced it with other words—like “elevenses” for the mid-morning break and “tea” for the mid-afternoon.
As for “luncheon,” it didn’t start out as the name of a meal.
In the late 16th century, when both “luncheon” and “lunch” were first recorded, they meant a piece, hunk, or lump, as of bread or cheese or meat. In fact, the OED suggests, “lump” may be their etymological source.
While the longer form was recorded earlier—“luncheon” in 1580 and “lunch” in 1591—it’s not certain what their exact relationship was. Perhaps “lunch” was a clipped form of “luncheon.” Or perhaps “luncheon” was an extended form of “lunch.”
At any rate, in the mid-1600s “luncheon” became the name of a meal, originally “a slight repast taken between two of the ordinary meal-times, esp. between breakfast and mid-day dinner,” the OED says.
But in the meantime, “lunch” continued to mean a hunk or lump (usually of food). It wasn’t until the 1820s that “lunch” became a synonym for the “luncheon” meal, and it is now the dominant term.
Today, as the OED says, “with those who ‘dine’ in the evening, luncheon denotes a meal (understood to be less substantial and less ceremonious than dinner) taken usually in the early afternoon.”
The word is now “somewhat formal,” the dictionary adds, so “lunch” is “the usual word exc. in specially formal use.”