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Free Lunch

by DANIEL CASSIDY

“The idea that… food for ill-fed pupils…is ‘socialistic’ is absurd. A free lunch does not seem to be more dangerous than a free lesson in arithmetic.”

— Charles Robbins, 1918.

A free lunch in saloons is history. But free lunch in school for poor kids should be mandatory.  There should be free food for anyone who is hungry. If that’s socialism, I’m a socialist. We give free meals to mass murderers. Why not for the poor? Why do you have to commit a crime to be fed? Perhaps that’s why one out of every one hundred Americans is in prison? We gave a free banquet worth billions to the big shots at Bear Stearns. Why not lunch for a kid in the slum? If free lunch is socialistic then the “swells” already have socialism in the U.S.  The billionaire Warren Buffet said it is unfair that his housekeeper pays a larger percentage of her earnings in taxes than he does. But that isn’t unfair. It’s a free lunch.

The word lunch has been imprisoned in English dictionaries for life. This week let’s free “lunch.”

No one would classify the word “lunch” as slang. The Irish language has had an enormous hidden influence on Standard English, as well as slang. What I am really writing about are misspelled, mispronounced Irish words dating back to the first manuscripts of the early medieval age, when Irish scholars, as Thomas Cahill wrote, “served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe…”  (Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, 1995, 3.)

This column’s title Slanguage can also be interpreted as the contraction “‘s language,” meaning “it is language,” because it is the pervasive, hidden presence of Irish in the American language that we are revealing for the first time in history.  Now let’s go to lunch.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology defines lunch as a meal taken at midday with an “uncertain origin.” It then speculates that lunch “perhaps evolved from lump, on the analogy of the apparent relation between hump and hunch, bump and bunch.”  Try reciting this quickly: “lunch from lump as hump and hunch, bump and bunch.”  The dictionary dudes are “out to lunch.”

Lunch is generally a number of foods and condiments, unless it’s a cheesy (tíosach, pron. chísah, cheap, frugal) lunch. At one time free lunch was common in saloons.

“It is common to find a ‘free lunch’ …in the more important California bar-rooms… Soup, fish, made-dishes, joints, and vegetables, are on the fare of a ‘free lunch.’” (William Rae, Westward by Rail, 1871, 231.)

The origin of the word lunch is the plural Irish noun lóinte (pron. lónche) meaning food or victuals.

Lóinte (pron. lónche), al. lónta, pl., Modern Irish singular lón,food, meat, fare, ration (esp. of food), repast, lunch, luncheon; from “Middle Irish lón, Old Irish lóon; (it is) cognate with Old Breton lon.” (Mac Bain’s Gaelic Etymological Dictionary; Dineen, 675; Ó Dónaill, 800.)

Lunch derived from the Oxford dictionary dudes’ (dúid, a funny looking fellow, a numbskull) hunch of a relationship between bunch, lump, hump, and bump, is not only idiotic; it’s like witches’ brew for a beer. Lunch, from the Irish plural lóinte (pron. lónche), meaning “a number of foods,” and even a ham sandwich and a hard boiled egg, is finally free!

“Mac moved to the free-lunch counter…… ‘How come you’re wide open, Mike? Didn’t you know there’s a Volstead law?’ Mac… helped himself to a ham sandwich and a hard boiled egg.” (James T. Farrell, Gashouse McGinty, 1933, [1950], 7.)

A saloon in New York City in the 1850s was also called a “lunch” because it served free lunch (lóinte, pron. lónche, food) with the drinks.  .

“UNION SALOON – No.149 Pearl Street… the Linneman brothers have just opened a saloon, or lunch, at the above place.… Free lunch every day from 10 to 12 AM, when they will be happy to see their friends.” (New York Times, July 1, 1852, 3.)

A luncheon is a swell (sóúil, sumptuous, luxurious) lunch.

In Scots-Gaelic lóintean (pron. lónch’an), means “food, or an abundance of food.” So lunch and luncheon are both derived from the Gaelic languages.(Dwelly, 596.) 

Luncheon, n., a (formal) lunch. Origin uncertain.

Lóintean (Gaelic, pron. lónch’an), n. pl., food, provisions; a number of foods. Dwelly, 596, 599.)

The Barnhart English etymological dictionary speculates that “luncheon is derived from the Middle English word nonechench, a noon drink. But that’s a “liquid lunch.”  Luncheons are large and sumptuous. (Barnhart, 615.)

“No little scraps of bounty … but large Lunchions of Munificence.” (H. More, 1685; OED)

Barnhart’s dictionary also proposes that luncheon may be from “Proto-Germanic skankona and Old English scanca, which it defines as “a hollow bone…and hence a pipe thrust into a cask to tap it.”  I kid you not. There’s even another etymology of lunch, derived from the Spanish lonja, meaning “a slice.” A slice is nice but it isn’t lunch. At best, it’s an hors d’oeuvre.  These “scientific” etymologies are as out to lunch as the “scientific” race and eugenics theories that were taught at major universities in Europe and the United States from the 1870s until the 1940s.

But today lunch (lóinte, pron. lónche, food) is free. It’s on me.

DANIEL CASSIDY is the author of How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads, CounterPunch/AK Press., 2007.
In a lecture sponsored by the N.Y. Public Library, on April 19, 2008, “Twenty Books Every Irish American Should Read,” the author and critic Tom Deignan designated  How the Irish Invented Slang number #1 on the list. Dan Cassidy can be reached at DanCas1@aol.com

This column first appeared in the Irish Echo newspaper: http://www.irishecho.com/index.cfm.

 

 

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Daniel Cassidy is the author of How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads, CounterPunch/AK Press., 2007.

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