I have seen several questions and also announcements that mention the term "brown bag" seminar. I understand that in American English "brown-bagging" means bringing your own lunch:

the practice of bringing one's own packed lunch to work.

I would like some sort of a definition in academic setting.


It means it's held around lunchtime and they aren't going to be providing lunch, but you are welcome to bring your own and eat during the event. So the event is somewhat informal.


On top of the other answer:

Brown bags stem from the times when people used to bring their lunch to work in a literal paper brown bag.

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The events have generally transformed into (the key points being):

  • a "lunch provided" or "bring your own lunch"
  • are generally over one's lunch hour which is typically unpaid.

Food is often provided in order to counteract the second point of it being in your own time, as to help with attendance.

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    @Reid you could be right, but here in the UK at most of the places I've worked/seen they've almost exclusively been a lunchtime activity with the bribe of free lunch. But I did caveat with "generally" for that reason! – GPPK Dec 16 '19 at 15:32
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    What exactly do you mean by "the times when people used to bring their lunch to work in a literal paper brown bag"? I assure you that people still do that, and brown paper lunch bags are sold by many retailers, including Amazon. – jamesqf Dec 16 '19 at 17:46
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    Some people still bring their lunch to work in literal brown paper bags. – Michael Hampton Dec 16 '19 at 22:36
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    I believe I do have a few brown paper bags at home, but all of them came from a liquor store. That would make for a fun seminar! – IMil Dec 17 '19 at 0:42
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    @IMil You'll be happy to know that one of the topology seminars at MIT when I attended was called the "Bourbon seminar", I'll let you guess why. Although at the time I attended it, it had mostly made the switch to whiskey (this is no secret, many papers have "with thanks to the participants to the Bourbon seminar" in the acknowledgements). – Denis Nardin Dec 17 '19 at 23:05

I have up-voted Elizabeth Henning's answer, but to expand a bit for those unfamiliar with the concept:

Related term: "lunch and learn"

Generally held at or around lunch time.
Will often be considered as not part of work time. Whether they are optional depends on where you work - they aren't always optional (sometimes you're expected to attend a certain number per year for continuing education).

Often it is person within your institution who does the presentation - instead of a person brought in to present to you.
The presentation isn't always directly related to your (or their) work and may be completely unrelated.

Generally where I've worked it has been considered polite to attend and act interested - but my experience with them has been more at the "less than 20 people" co-worker/department level.

I have seen the frequency decrease in the last ten years or so, YMMV

Also note comments in other answers that contradict my answer


It means you have to bring your own lunch and participate in an informal presentation / discussion done by some poor sucker who had no choice but to do it. And you've got no choice but to be a member of the audience while you eat lunch while working through your lunch hour, don't get paid for it, and have your lunch ruined.

It happened in a company i worked at once... regularly.

  • Sure you have a choice. Noone has to attend, if you attend you don't have to actively participate, and IME the presenter/discussion leader(s) don't have to do it either. If the company you worked at made it compulsory, unpaid overtime and miserable, that's not the usual setup, and it's bad for morale for all sorts of reasons. People should perceive some shared interest in voluntarily attending, otherwise the whole spirit of the thing goes out the window. – smci Dec 18 '19 at 9:16
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    given that we're on the Academia site (and not, e.g., on The Workplace), I would say that this answer is a little out of place. The expectation that people might want to hear about some new topic while eating lunch seems consistent with the academic setting that the OP asked about. As far as I can remember all of the brown-bag seminars I've encountered in my academic career have been optional (although it's certainly plausible that your supervisor could pressure you to attend one). – Ben Bolker Dec 18 '19 at 21:23

I have seen "brown bag meetings" where someone gives a talk that is only loosely related to their (or the institute's) work, often more a collection of thoughts or hobby interests, rather than actual research. Talks that do not fit in standard research talks, therefore are more likely "binned" (or put in a waste bag/paper bag for disposal). Those had nothing to do with lunch.

  • my faint impression was that there is "lunch" meaning, as well as "kitchen sink" one – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Dec 16 '19 at 23:52

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