Q: To me, “refreshments” can refer to food or drink. But in the last 10 years, at least in Cincinnati, I’ve seen it used exclusively for beverages. Often an event will mention “snacks and refreshments” or something similar, implying that the snacks are solid and the refreshments liquid. Have you noticed this, and what can you say about it?
A: All six of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree with you that the word “refreshments” refers to food or drink or both.
However, English speakers have been using the expression “food and refreshments” for nearly two centuries. Go figure!
The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1816 account in the New Evangelical Magazine about the last days of Thomas Paine, the American political activist and Founding Father, who died in 1809 in Greenwich Village.
A letter forwarded to the magazine describes how a family living near Paine “had contributed to his comfort by occasionally preparing and sending him food and refreshments more adapted to his situation than he usually enjoyed.”
The phrase “food and refreshments” has been used regularly since then, according to the results of a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books.
However, the phrase you mentioned, “snacks and refreshments,” is a relative newcomer, showing up in the mid-20th century and increasing sharply in usage since then, according to an Ngram search.
The earliest example we’ve found for the new phrase is from a 1949 issue of the magazine Outdoor Indiana:
“The Division of State Parks, Lands and Waters, under whose supervision Mounds State Park is operated, maintains a service pavilion where snacks and refreshments may be obtained by park guests.”
As you’d expect, “food” is the oldest of these words, dating back to Old English, when it was spelled fóda. and meant a “nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary offers this Old English example from the abbot Ælfric’s Interrogationes Sigewulfi (The Questions of Sigewulf): “On þære oðre fleringe wæs heora nytena foda gelogod” (“On another floor was the food for cattle”).
Although the noun “snack” is fairly old too, dating back to the early 1400s, it originally meant a snap or bite, especially from a dog. It evolved over the years to mean a snappish remark, a part of something, and in the mid-1700s a bite of food or a light meal.
The OED’s earliest example for the culinary sense is from a 1757 issue of the Monitor or British Freeholder: “When once a man has got a snack of their trenchers, he too often retains a hankering after the honey-pot.”
And here’s a figurative usage from a letter by the poet John Keats: “Having taken a snack or luncheon of literary scraps.”
Finally, the word “refreshment.” When English adapted the term in the 1400s from several Gallic sources, according to the OED, it meant “refreshing a person or thing physically, by means of food, drink, rest, coolness, etc.”
The use of the plural “refreshments” in the modern sense of a light meal or drink didn’t show up until the 1600s, according to the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1639 entry in a notebook kept by Thomas Lechford, a Boston lawyer: “You must … have some refreshments besides the ships provisions … that is, some suger and fine ruske or bisket.”
Getting back to your question, one could argue that the expression “food and refreshments” is redundant, but we’d describe it as an idiomatic usage with a long history. In other words, relax and have a canapé.