A tiffin carrier / tiffin-box / dabba / tiffin

I encountered the word tiffin the other day as the name of type of cake and wondered where it comes from.

According to the OED, tiffin is a light midday meal or luncheon in India and neighbouring eastern countries. It is also used as a verb meaning ‘to take tiffin/lunch’ or ‘to provide with tiffin’.

It is thought to derive from the English slang/dialect word tiffing, from the verb to tiff, which means ‘to take a little drink or sip’. The origins of tiff are unknown.

Tiffin is used to refer to snacks between meals in southern India and Nepal. Elsewhere in India tiffin might be a packed lunch, which is often delivered by dabbawallahs or tiffin wallahs on bicycles in places like Mumbai, and is packed in a lunch box known as a tiffin carrier, a tiffin-box, a dabba or a tiffin (see picture top right). Such lunches may contain such things as rice, curry, vegetables, dal, chapatis or spicy meats.

In the early 19th century the British custom of having a large meal during the afternoon was found to be less than ideal for the hot climate of India, and British inhabitants of India acquired the Indian custom of a light meal at midday and a larger meal in the evening. The earliest reference to tiffin in the OED dates back to 1800.

Sources: Wikipedia & World Wide Words

The tiffin cake I ate contained chocolate, dates, crushed biscuits, raisins and other goodies, and was rather tasty. There are recipes for this type of tiffin here and here.

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, Language.

3 Responses to Tiffin

  1. Svetla says:

    Sounds yummy, your tiffin cake. 😉
    I’d better not look at the recipe or the calories will land by themselves on my body.

  2. Yenlit says:

    If ‘tiffin’ is derived from an obsolete Northern English dialect word ‘tiff’ meaning ‘a small draught of alcoholic drink’ then could tiff be related to ‘tipple’ ie. ‘to make a habit of drinking in small quantities’ and related also to ‘tipsy’ all derived from ‘tap’?
    Being an archaic Northern dialect word, is there any related word preserved in Scots English or could tiff be connected with German tief ‘deep’ as in the allusion to drink deeply?

  3. renato says:

    We have this gear in Brazil calling “marmita” we use to transport made food, from home to work or vice-versa. It keeps the food hot.

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