A blend of breakfast and lunch, the noun brunch denotes a late morning meal eaten instead of breakfast and lunch.
It originated, apparently in the late 19th century, as Oxford University slang and is first recorded in Lunch at Oxford, by Margaret B. Wright, published in The Independent (New York) of Thursday 22nd August 1895:
Five students and one stranger sit at table. Behind us a solemn “scout” passed noiselessly backward and forward, so noiselessly that when the lobster salad should give place to cold duck, behold! no scout was there.
“A don in the room below is giving a lunch,” grumbled our host: “he has gobbled the scout.”
Thereupon ﬁve Oxford men turned waiters, and, more or less dextrously, deposited salad plates upon the deep window couches and elsewhere, resetting the table from the sideboard.
“Ekker! jolly for the digegger,” they say, with solemn laughter.
What language is this, of ancient peoples and forgotten times?
“‘Ekker’ is exercise, don’t you know? they explain; ‘digegger’ is digestion. When a man walks in the park he takes a ‘pazzer;’ when his people come to see him they are ‘straggers,’ or strangers.”
“Easy enough when you once get the swing,” said the youth known as “Father William,” because of his thinning hair. “Breakfast is ‘brekker’ in the Oxford tongue; when a man makes lunch his ﬁrst meal of the day it becomes ‘brunch;’ and a tea-dinner at the Union Club is a ‘smug’ at the ‘Ugger.’”
I have discovered a verb use of brunch which predates the earliest quote in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED – 3rd edition, 2016). It is from The Globe (London) of Thursday 16th July 1896 (the “Lady” refers to the magazine of that name – I have not found the article in question in that magazine):
We have the authority of the “Lady” for a new word. The new word is “brunch,” which is evolved, on the lines laid down by Lewis Carroll, from “breakfast’’ and “lunch.” It means a meal combining the characteristics of the two. He who rises too late for breakfast, and is too hungry to wait for lunch, “brunches.” We suppose also that he who gets up too late for lunch and cannot wait for dinner, “linners,” but the “Lady” does not say so.
The following day, the same newspaper made this correction:
Concerning “brunch” and “brunching,” we have received a letter from a well-informed philologist. The “Lady’” is wrong, he says, in supposing “brunch” to a new word. It is at least two years old, and comes from that repository of new words, Oxford. Moreover, it must not be confounded with “blunch.” He who partakes of a breakfast-lunch combination meal nearer the ordinary breakfast hour than the ordinary luncheon hour, “brunches;” but he who partakes of it nearer the ordinary luncheon hour than the ordinary breakfast hour, “blunches.” The distinction is important.
The South Wales Daily News of Saturday 18th July of that year described what brunch consisted of:
HOW TO BRUNCH.
To be fashionable nowadays one must, according to the ‘Lady,’ “brunch.” The exercise simply consists of an amalgamated breakfast and lunch, after the manner of the French ‘dejeuner à la fourchette.’ A proper “brunch” should combine the light dishes of morning with the more substantial fare of afternoon. For liquids there are the inevitable tea and coffee, while those who prefer to follow the robust fashions of our ancestors can have beer or claret. The name is a compound of the nouns “breakfast” and “lunch.”
(The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (6th edition, 1835) defined the now obsolete French expression déjeuner à la fourchette (literally to breakfast with the fork) as “manger de la viande à son déjeuner”, to eat meat at one’s breakfast.)
The earliest use of brunch is often inaccurately attributed to Guy Beringer in (according to the above-mentioned OED edition) an article published in the Hunter’s Weekly of 5th November 1895. (It is however possible that he coined the word independently.) I have not found this article but it was mentioned in Punch, or the London Charivari of 1st August 1896:
BRUNCH v. BLUNCH!
According to the ‘Lady,’ to be fashionable nowadays we must “brunch.” Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct ‘Hunter’s Weekly,’ and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch. At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination-meal, when nearer the usual breakfast hour, is “brunch,” and, when nearer luncheon, is “blunch.” Please don’t forget this.
’Tis the voice of the Bruncher, I heard him complain,
“You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again!
When the clock says it’s twelve, then perhaps I’ll revive,
Meanwhile into bed yet once more let me dive!
The last meal I had was about 3 a.m.;
I’m a writer, so please don’t such habits condemn!
This cross between supper and breakfast I’ll name,
If you’ll let me, a ‘suckfast’—and ‘brupper’’s the same!
Later on, too, a similar mixture I make,
And of ‘five o’clock tinner’ at seven I partake;
The term’s à propos, for the fare is tinned meat,
With tea for ‘ontray’ and lump sugar for sweet.
While the small hours get larger I’m fit as a flea,
The sunrise I’m cheerfully ready to see,
With ‘blunch’ for to-morrow, and no trains to catch,
I don’t need to repose with unseemly despatch.
Beauty sleep is a thing that ne’er troubles my head;
When the cock has done crowing I turn into bed,
Then peacefully dream of the virtues of ‘blunch,’
And, on waking, I rise and indite this to ‘Punch!’”
An English invention, brunch was adopted and adapted in the USA. The Lincolnshire Echo of Wednesday 31st March 1948 described the American brunch:
THIS IS BRUNCH: SUNDAY QUICKIE
Last week’s article on re-organising Sunday led two readers to write asking me the same question. “Can you tell me what the American meal ‘brunch’ really consists of?”
It may interest those of you who are anxious to reduce Sunday work to know that “brunch” was originated to give the American housewife extra free time on Sundays. It is an easily prepared combination of breakfast and lunch and is served any time between eleven and one-thirty.
A seat-down or buffet meal, it contains nourishing food and drink, with only one hot item. A typical “brunch” includes seasonable fresh fruit (grapefruit, oranges and apples), tomato or fruit juice, a variety of cereals, a hot snack and coffee. The hot snack is usually a savoury, a favourite being scrambled eggs with bacon rolls.
The latter are ordinary bread rolls, baked in the oven and served with hot crisp bacon sandwiched between. Eggs baked in cheese sauce are often eaten at “brunch” and so are eggs poached on half muffins and accompanied by corned beef fritters. In winter, soup is added to the menu.