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.