On more than one occasion I’ve had a well-meaning reader point out to me a ‘typo’ that wasn’t. I’ll be the first to admit, my typing is less than perfect and typos get by me sometimes. But every once in awhile, I actually typed a weird looking word right.
The word in question is a weird one indeed. It looks like a modern word we use, sort of sounds like that word, seems like it should be interchangeable with that modern word.
The word in question is (drumroll ples…) NUNCHEON
Yes, that’s right., it isn’t a typo. I really meant to write nuncheon–pronounced ‘noon-shun’ It was a thing back in the Regency era, but had origins all the way back to the 1300’s.
What’s a nuncheon?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:
mid-14c., “slight refreshment,” originally taken in the afternoon, from none “noon” (see noon) + shench “draught, cup,” from Old English scenc, related to scencan “to pour out, to give to drink,” cognate with Old Frisian skenka “to give to drink, German, Dutch schenken “to give.” Compare luncheon. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=nuncheon)
The word nuncheon is a little perplexing. It seems to come from the words noon, (which seems like it ought to mean just that, noon, 12pm, but not, it’s not that simple. The word noon in this case is either the Latin word for ninth—as in ninth hour of the day from sunrise, that is about midday OR the old Icelandic word nón that referred to about three in the afternoon) and schench meaning to drink.
All that to say it seems the word originally referred to a drink of some kind taken at midday or early afternoon. Later it came to mean a small meal or snack taken some time between mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
Just to make it all the more interesting, citations from the Oxford English Dictionary show nuncheon spelled many different ways: “nonesenches,” “nunseynches,” “nunchions,” “noonshun,” “noonchin,” “nunchun,” and others. Way to make finding a typo difficult, right? It’s bad enough when there’s only one right way to spell something, but now give us six–just not fair!
Wait, no, there’s a seventh option–Jane Austen spelled it “noon-chine” in her 1811 version of 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 published since Austen’s 1817 death usually spell the word either “nuncheon” or “nunchion.” (O’Conner, 2017)
What to Nosh for Nuncheon?
So, if Jane Austen or her characters invited us to share nuncheon with them, what might we enjoy? Tea and dainties? Cucumber sandwiches? Not likely
Most references suggest a lump of something like cheese or bread with something like beer or ale to wash it down. (Clarkson, 2008) Others suggest food was laid out more intentionally on a sideboard, probably in a dining room. Partakers could pick from cold meats like ham and roast beef, pickles, fruit preserves, and sweet items like cakes, buns, and tarts, all washed down with ale or tea. They might even enjoy a sandwich of bread, meat, and cheese. (Scott, 2009)
So why do we not use such a charming word anymore? Probably because it was replaced with other words like ‘elevenses’ and ‘tea’, which are perfectly fine words, to be sure. But somehow I still feel the loss of the charming ‘nuncheon.’
Sounds a lot like Lunch to Me
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering if nuncheon is related to luncheon and consequently to lunch, the answer is, surprisingly, it is hard to tell. The first recorded appearance of the word lunch was not found until in Richard Percival’s 1591 Spanish–English dictionary, and luncheon did not appear until after that! Both referred to a midday, informal meal. (Wilton, 2013)
From the Online Etymology Dictionary again:
lunch (n.)“mid-day repast, small meal between breakfast and dinner,” 1786, a shortened form of luncheon (q.v.) in this sense (1650s), which is of uncertain origin; it appears to be identical with an older word meaning “thick piece, hunk” (1570s), which perhaps evolved from lump (n.) [OED]. There also was a contemporary nuncheon “light mid-day meal,” from noon + Middle English schench “drink.” Old English had nonmete “afternoon meal,” literally “noon-meat.” The verb meaning “to take to lunch” (said to be from the noun) also is attested from 1786…
As late as 1817 the only definition of lunch (n.) in Webster’s is “a large piece of food,” but this is now obsolete. OED says in 1820s the word “was regarded either as a vulgarism or as a fashionable affectation.”
luncheon (n.)“light repast between mealtimes,” 1650s (lunching; spelling luncheon by 1706); earlier “thick piece, hunk (of bread),” 1570s (luncheon), which is of uncertain origin. Perhaps it is based on northern English dialectal lunch “hunk of bread or cheese” (1580s; said to be probably from Spanish lonja “a slice,” literally “loin”), blended with or influenced by nuncheon (Middle English nonechenche, mid-14c.) “light mid-day meal,” from none “noon” (see noon) + schench “drink,” from Old English scenc, from scencan “pour out.”
Despite the form lunching in the 1650s source OED discounts that it possibly could be from lunch (v.), which is first attested more than a century later. It suggests perhaps an analogy with truncheon, etc., or to simulate a French origin. Especially in reference to an early afternoon meal eaten by those who have a noontime dinner.
Who’da thunk, right? Seems so obvious, and yet… You never know what you’ll find at the bottom of the research rabbit hole!
Butters, Mary Jane . “Nuncheon, anyone?” Raising Jane Journal. March 05, 2013. Accessed September 11, 2017. http://www.raisingjane.org/journal/33698.
Clarkson, Janet. “The Old Foodie.” Lunch or Luncheon? October 23, 1970. Accessed September 11, 2017. http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2008/10/lunch-or-luncheon.html.
Clarkson, Janet. “The Old Foodie.” Not Luncheon. October 24, 2008. Accessed September 11, 2017. http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2008/10/not-luncheon.html.
“Nuncheon.” Nuncheon – Everything2.com. October 14, 2003. Accessed September 11, 2017. https://everything2.com/title/nuncheon.
O’Conner, Patricia, and Stewart Kellerman. “Munch on, crunch on, nuncheon!” Grammarphobia. December 28, 2016. Accessed September 11, 2017. https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2016/12/nuncheon.html.
“Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed September 11, 2017. http://www.etymonline.com/.
Scott, Regina. “Nuncheon, Anyone?” NineteenTeen. April 3, 2009. Accessed September 11, 2017. http://nineteenteen.blogspot.com/2009/04/nuncheon-anyone.html.
Wilton, Dave. “Lunch, Luncheon.” Wordorigins.org. October 1, 2013. Accessed September 11, 2017. http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/site/comments/lunch_luncheon/.