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How did it come to be that the main course of a meal is referred to as "entree", where that french word has always meant "appetizer" ? Did someone translate it incorrectly it ages ago, and we haven't caught on yet, or is there another reason?

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3 Answers 3

We're applying a French word to a Russian practice. This can only go wrong!

More seriously, we're not even doing that, but the dining practice at most high-end Western restaurants that don't highlight the following of a particular ethnic practice is a late-20th Century adaptation of service à la russe.

Now, the fact that the English term for this is to use a French term that means "service as the Russians do it", is a potted history of this approach all in itself. Indeed, generalise that to "the English term is a French term that means how they do it outside of Western Europe" and you have a story that has repeated itself several times in the history of haute cuisine.

Service à la russe means that you have several courses, which are brought to the table as the previous one is finished, or ideally after just the right length of pause (a skill that sets a Michelin star quality meal apart from a merely excellent one, in itself). But really it means more than that, and what we have is the result of over a hundred years of changes to that style of dining, that is changing still as innovations from the far ends of the spectrum from the likes of Noma and the Fat Duck on one end, and fast-food establishments on the other, work their way into the middle. For a start, we most often eat only 2-3 courses with maybe a couple more on special occasions and even a 3-hour tasting menu may have less than a dozen courses (I don't recall one going above 12 including amuse-bouche and petit fours) where originally service à la russe would have frequently had 13, 14 or more courses.

Before then, we had service à la française which was also sometimes called service à l'anglaise, but which wasn't really called anything until the French and English wanted a name to mean "the way we used to do it, before this new fancy Russian way became fashionable". This is close to a buffet style, but with some items brought to and from the table (what the Scandinavians still call "cold table" is close, if generally less showy).

Most of the food would be laid out on the table in a manner designed to impress on first sight, with a roast ready to carve part-way through the meal, but some would be brought to the diners, and taken from them when they were finished.

These dishes would be brought in with some fanfare, of which the best modern example (indeed, one that often goes beyond how it would have been in those days) being the piping of the haggis such as I would have enjoyed on Friday had their been any justice in the world and I hadn't been too busy to celebrate Burns Nicht properly. That is to say, they would have made an entrance, or in French, une entrée.

Even at this time, just which dish (or perhaps, just which entrance) counted as the entrée wasn't a point of universal agreement, which possibly owes more to hosts' desire to place the focus on a dish other than the first, that they were particularly proud of leading to the term being applied to a course after the soup and/or fish, than to either of those.

So, in using entrée at all, we're using a term of imprecise meaning, for something at some point in a particular type of service, while practising an adaptation of yet another type of service, in which we have much fewer courses, and in which those courses are nowhere near as well defined in terms of contents or sequence.

Really not all that surprising that we don't agree on what it actually means, is it?

I suspect that confusion over just what does and doesn't count as an entremet didn't help matters either (strictly a small dish between more substantial dishes, but it's an even older word being applied to an even more recent course, so it can be even less well-defined).

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The French word doesn't actually mean "appetizer"; it comes from a dish introduced between two courses in a formal dinner. It may originally have come from the word "entrance" and even changed in its French meaning.

OED has a citation

1880 H. Thompson Food & Feeding 84 : A family dinner may ... consist of soup, fish, entrée, roast and sweet.

OED also has a "chiefly North American" variant, given as "the main dish or course of a meal", and supported by another citation:

1903 Good Housekeeping Mar. 266/1 : The word [‘entree’] stands for a dish introduced between two courses in a formal dinner. A ‘tasty’ entree, however, with a good soup at the beginning and a nice dessert as the end, may appear in the middle of a family dinner and fill out a most satisfactory bill of fare.

Thus it's still a dish introduced between two courses, but rather than a light dish it's the main course.

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I hate to submit a simple link as an answer, but this does seem to cover your question

I also don't like simply copying and pasting the content of an answer from elsewhere -- yes, this does make my submission liable to staleness of the link but copying someone else's work seems somewhat unfair.

EDIT (June 10 2015)

In 1555, when entrée was first used to refer to the first course of a French meal, the privileged classes staged sumptuous dinners. Entrée comes from a word meaning “entrance.” In the 16th century, the first dish at a fancy dinner wasn’t just plunked down on the table. It was brought in by a procession of liveried servants to the sound of trumpet fanfares. This first course was termed the entrée de table. After the entree (or entrees) came the soup, and after the soup, the roast, and after the roast, the final course.

According to food historians, this order of service gradually changed.

By the 1650s, the French entrée was a hot meat dish served after the soup. The word continued to have this meaning until after 1921, when it came to have its present French meaning of “a light first course.”


However, from what I’ve read in various sources, many British speakers equate entree with “starter”; what Americans would call the “appetizer.”

In the “ideal’ four-course meal for the Queen voted on for a BBC contest in 2006, the four courses are described as: Starter, Fish Course, Main Course, and Dessert.

Entree is a word that has changed its meaning through the centuries, in French as it has in British and American English.

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I think the substance of that link could have been summarised in not many more words than it took here to explain why You weren't going to do that. Andrew's answer is perhaps longer than it needed to be, and barely addresses the exact question (which is covered by your link, but not directly by you). Are you sure you don't think it's worth paraphrasing into a couple of sentences, as well as having the link so people can dig a bit deeper (if they want, and if it's still "live")? – FumbleFingers Jan 28 '13 at 4:01
+1 (granted, I only saw it after @Mari-Lou A 's good edit). Of course, each language is free to use a word as it sees fit, but an amusing example of where this freedom can be challenged is presented when self-proclaimed “authentique” French restaurants doing business in English(AE)-speaking countries use “entrées” to head the listing of their “plats principaux” on their otherwise perfectly designed “cartes.” Although perhaps not an indication that their food is not good, it certainly (for me) calls into question their claim of authenticity. – Papa Poule Jun 10 at 13:36

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