In Jean Anouilh's play "Becket," there's a tense scene in which the bishop of London is denouncing Thomas Becket in the presence of the king. "Traitor!" he rants. "Little viper! Libertine! Sycophant! Saxon!"

To which the king (in the movie version, played by Peter O'Toole) coolly replies, "My reverend friend I suggest you respect my chancellor, or else I'll call my guards." At that, iron doors smash suddenly open, and a squad of mean-looking men in iron helmets march into the room.

"Why, here they are!" the king says. "Oh, no, it's my snack. Excuse me, gentlemen, but around noon I need something to peck at or I tend to feel weak. And a king has no right to weaken, I'll tell you that."

But the others, Becket among them, who jumped out of their skins when those doors burst open, are standing aghast. For while it is indeed only a snack, meat on a skewer, it could have been something far worse.

In other words, it was your typical business lunch. But I did not understand these matters very keenly during my early years in Washington, and was made under the etymological misunderstanding that the word "lunch" derived from the word "lounge." And so, on the premises of my first place of employment, used to make a good, solid nap from noon till one. Moreover, I knew just the place to do this, because some thoughtful fellow had placed an Army cot with a soft pillow on it back in the dark coolness of the office supply room.

Such bliss was not to last, however, for after a few months of uncomplicated slumber, I began to notice that my fellow workers were snickering in the hallways and making mysterious, insulting remarks, whose meaning became plain when I was hauled into the director's office and told that one of my gender was not likely to have the complaints that the cot had been put there, by law, to alleviate and that I was thereafter to strive to lead a more normal life.

Shortly afterward, a well-meaning friend advised me that since leading a normal life meant striving to get ahead, it would be necessary to have lunch with people instead of playing football in the park or trying to nap under a tree. And so, thinking now that "lunch" might be associated with "launch," as in "to launch one's, career," I began doing as he suggested, with lamentable results. For while "having lunch" with someone you neither knew nor wanted to know seemed to be the fashion in our town, it was expensive, loud and hot, and waiters were always hurrying you along with a kind of flicking-eyed body English they had, and the diners were jammed too close together.

Moreover, since one's fellow lunchers, too, were on the launch, and smoother about it, the scene in the restaurant was even more tense than it had been in the office. It seemed that they either wanted something out of you, and would take an agonizingly long time to spring it, or else they never came to the point, and left you wondering what had transpired -- whether you had been pumped for information, or eviscerated or decoyed away from some other place that you were supposed to be, or made to say foolish things that would afterward be repeated to your disadvantage. And you hoped that your lunch partner had been smart enough to have something of the sort of mind, and to get some benefit out of it, because those were miserable occasions, in which it at last began to seem that the truly kindred word to "lunch" was the verb "to lunge" -- presumably at the other fellow's liver, and with an epee -- either that or "to lynch," a picnic hanging.

Like most Washingtonians, then, I came to regard "Let's have lunch" as a species of threat, and to distrust who uttered it -- although there did seem to be certain minor exceptions in which the infamous of lunching might be distantly associated with the word "lozenge," a soother of that which is irritated.

For instance, at one office I've heard about, there is an expression, "Let's lunch up so-and-so," which means that the prospective lunchee has been acting down at the mouth, and that, under the circumstances, the best thing for him is to be put into a loud, hallucinatory room full of screeching strangers, wherein several of the office staff will sit circled around watching him eat. The theory of it, so far as I can gather, is that thereafter he will feel better disposed toward those who do this to him -- a notion that seems somewhat questionable to me, because I am part owner of an old black dog who regards feeling down at the mouth, now and again, as one of his inalienable rights and who, were I to be so disrespectful as to stand over his bowl watching him inhale his muck, might possibly feel justified in sinking his teeth into my leg.

The truth is that I've not had lunch with anybody in 10 years, because it came at last to be uncomfortably associated with "lurch" -- which is what those rooms seemed to be doing as one sat staring at some feral stranger, while being anxiously on guard, stupendously out of pocket, and trying to feed oneself to the obligatto of overheard conversations that were startling in their casual power. ("By the way, Floyd, we're going to give you Fred's job. But don't tell him because he's got eight children.") At last, then, there began to arise the notion of "loonch" -- a meal eaten by loons.

These days, I have a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich on the front porch, and would be reasonably content were it not for the shame I feel at not being dowtown leading a normal life. And I never go down there during lunch hour without admiring the industrious tenacity of my fellow citizens gamely scurrying onward to the next restaurant to carry out the business of the republic over a feast of long pig. To be in Washington at such a time is to share at last Becket's astonishment at the ambivalent power of that ancient feast, in which business and pleasure are interwoven with all the grace of a man trying to make love to a maiden while shoeing a horse. And since astonishment immobilizes, it's perhaps no wonder that what finally got carved up in "Becket" was Becket himself -- or perhaps one should say, Richard Burton, who, as the bishop of London might agree, played in that movie the part most of us play in life.