Which words that you have collected throughout your life are words that matter to you?
Dialect delights me. I love hearing people with a distinct way of talking speak, love listening to their vocabulary, feeling the cadence of the rhythms of their words and understanding the patterns with which they use them. I am fascinated by what our choices in the words we use tell us about the way we want to be perceived in a particular setting, intrigued by the connotations and histories of our selections, all that baggage these words carry with them as they slide so seemingly effortlessly from our tongues. It delights me that no dialect is more or less correct than another; only more or less “official,” which is not the same thing.
I am fascinated by dialect because I am fascinated by place, always trying to find and understand my own belonging in this world, how and where I might be a unique contribution to a larger whole. The words we use tell us about ourselves — where we come from, the people who have loved us and whom we have loved, the experiences we’re carrying with us to this place of our current arrival. We show up and open our mouths, and dialect tells us and everyone around about belonging; if we fit here or somewhere else.
A word from my own vocabulary that has come to mean something to me is “supper.” The first time I realized not everyone used it to refer to the last meal of the day was during undergrad, when many of the people around me were from cities. They would ask, “Want to go to dinner?,” and I would feel some small sort of loss as I said yes.
It wasn’t that I had never heard the word “dinner” before; it was just that there, people used it differently. “Dinner,” to them, meant the last meal of the day. When I used it, I meant the second meal of the day if the food was hot and you exerted effort to make it. In my upbringing, dinner was akin to lunch, which is also a noonday meal, but only if you are eating cold food you can put together quickly, like a sandwich. Dinner, on the other hand, at our house, was usually eaten after church on Sundays and involved pancakes.
The usage of the word “dinner” in this way comes from days when farmers ate four meals a day — breakfast, dinner, lunch, and supper. Lunch — a sandwich or something like it – was brought to the field; dinner was a break from the heat of the day around noon, multiple courses eaten indoors around a table. Supper was later that night. The word “supper” reminds me of the people I come from, of where I am from, a small rural farming community in southeastern Missouri where people worked so hard outside in the sun they ate four meals a day. Breakfast, dinner, lunch, supper.
Of course, sometimes I use the word “dinner” to refer to the last meal of the day, because this meaning is now also a part of me, a term I’ve collected from living with and loving people who say it. It’s a beautiful thing, the way all these experiences get mixed up inside us, collecting them as we go, the shelves of our interior walls lined with objects we can take down and use when we need them, our very body the meeting place of so many things that shouldn’t go together, yet here we are. So sometimes I say the word “dinner” and mean I love you, people I am with and friends who have shaped me and Kirksville and Athens and Cape Girardeau. And sometimes I say the word “supper” and mean yes, family and rootedness and heritage and Apple Creek. I am yours. You are mine.
“Dinner” at noontime is a word that connects me to my grandma, feeding a meat and potato and vegetable and pie at noontime to five sons, a husband, and hired hands after baling hay herself in the field with them all morning. It is a word that reminds me of my dad, flipping pancakes made from the box mix on Sunday mornings after church. It is a word that makes way for supper, the last meal of the day, connecting me to my mom, bringing food over to the table. “Supper,” she’ll say.
That’s what we call it.