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In American English, à la mode means:

  • in fashion, up to date.
  • with ice cream.
  • (of beef) braised in wine, typically with vegetables.

While the first meaning matches the French meaning, the other two meanings are different. Why does à la mode have also the last two meanings, in English?

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Note that the last two meanings are not generally recognised in the UK. –  Colin Fine Jan 28 '11 at 15:31
    
I updated the question, as I took the meaning of à la mode from the NOAD. –  kiamlaluno Jan 28 '11 at 15:34
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The first and third meanings may technically be part of American English, but only the second listed meaning is generally recognised. –  Brian Knoblauch Jan 28 '11 at 15:38
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@kiamlaluno I have never in my life heard of your third sense. –  tchrist Sep 26 '12 at 15:43
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For the same reason that American restaurants refer to the cup of broth served with a "French dip" sandwich as "au jus". –  Hot Licks Mar 19 at 22:01

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

'À la mode' meaning 'in the fashionable way'

The phrase à la mode has appeared in English in the sense of "according to current fashion" for hundreds of years. It occurs, for example, in "marriage à la mode" used by John Dryden as the title of a comedy (1673) and by William Hogarth as the title of a series of paintings (1743–1745); in both of these instances, the meaning of the phrase is "marriage in the up-to-date manner."

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) gives a first occurrence date of 1646 for à la mode in English. The first match that a Google Books finds is from John Gaudin, Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ Suspiria: The Tears, Sighs, Complaints, and Prayers of the Church of England (1659):

...though the palpable cunning of some men hath taught them to abuse of this credulous age, by shaving off the hair & primitive ornament of this Church, which was very good & graceful (having the honour of ancient, venerable and gray-headed Episopacy upon it) that they might the better induce Christianity, which is now above 1500 years old, to put on and wear (a la mode) the new peruques either of young Presbytery, or younger Independency (rather than Religion should go quite bald, and be ridiculous by its deformity and confusion;) ...


'Alamode' as a fabric

In the 1600s, alamode as a noun referred to a type of silk, according to Esther Singleton and Russell Sturgis, The Furniture of Our Forefathers, volume 2 (1906):

Alamode, a thin, glossy, black silk, is mentioned in 1676 in company with “Taffaties, Sarsenets and Lutes.”

The same material is mentioned in an account book from 1673, cited in Alice Earle, Two Centuries of Costume in America, MDCXX–MDCCCXX, volume 1 (1903):

We have ample proof that these black whisks [neck coverings] were in general wear in England. In an account-book of Sarah Fell of Swarthmoor Hall in 1673, are these items : "a black alamode whiske for Sister Rachel ; a round whiske for Susanna ; a little black whiske for myself."


Food-focused use of 'à la mode'

A Google Books search finds an example of à la mode in the context of food going back to a May 12, 1667 entry in Samuel Pepys's diary about a dinner he took at "a French house" maintained by his perriwig maker, Monsieur Robbins, in London:

...and in a moment almost had the table covered, and clean glasses, and all in the French manner, and a mess of potage first, and then a couple of pigeons a la esterve, and then a piece of bœuf-a-la-mode, all exceeding well seasoned, and to our great liking; at least it would have been anywhere else but in this bad street, and in a perriwigg-maker's house; ...

From Nathan Bailey, The Universal Etymological English Dictionary (731):

BEEF alamode [in Cookery] beef well beaten, larded and stewed with lemon, pepper, mushrooms, white-wine, &c.

From Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, 1747):

Beef à la mode in pieces.

You must take a buttock of beef, cut it into two pound pieces, lard them with bacon, fry them brown, put them into a pot that will just hold them, put in two quarts of broth or gravy, a few sweet-herbs, an onion, some mace, cloves, nutmeg, pepper and salt ; when that is done, cover it close, and stew it till it is tender, skim off all the fat, lay the meat in the dish, and strain the sauce over it. You may serve it up hot or cold.

Glasse's book also has recipes for "Beef à la mode, the French way" [a much longer recipe than the "in pieces" alternative], "Ducks à la mode" and "A goose à la mode." From the descriptions offered, it doesn't appear that any particular ingredient triggered the "à la mode" designation; the ducks and goose are cooked with red wine, the French beef with vinegar, and the beef pieces with broth or gravy. All call for onion (or shallots), and all involve "close pot" cooking at some point, so perhaps the stewlike result of the cooking is what these dishes have most in common. According to the Wikipedia article on Glasse, The Art of Cookery went through many editions and "continued to be published until 1843."

To similar effect, Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (London, 1778) offers a promising lesson on "To a-la-mode BEEF." John Cooke, Cookery and Confectionary (London, 1824) includes options for "Rump of Beef à la Mode," "German à la Mode Beef," and "Beef Tails à la Mode."

William Kitchener, The Cook's Oracle, fourth edition (London, 1822) reports the existence of "Alamode Beef Shops" in London, dedicated to producing "this excellent dish" (beef à la mode), an observation confirmed by The Family Receipt-Book (1810) and mentioned in passing as early as 1795, in The Register of the Times (1795). Charles Dickens refers to beef alamode houses in David Copperfield (1850) and in several other of his writings. George Sala, Things I Have Seen and People I Have Known (1894) offers a fairly detailed retrospective view of such restaurants:

Forty, thirty, and even twenty years ago, alamode beef shops were scattered pretty liberally over central London, but the establishment with which I was most familiar was a house with the sign of the "Thirteen Cantons," in Blackmore Street, Drury Lane. ... Why it was called alamode puzzled me ; but it was a distinctly characteristic dish, deriving its peculiarity from the remarkably luscious and tasty sauce, or rather soup, with which it was accompanied.

In the United States, Mrs. N.K.M. Lee, The Cook's Own Book and Housekeeper's Register (Boston, 1832) offers three different recipes for "beef alamode." A somewhat similar recipe for "Veal à la mode" appears in House and Home; or, The Carolina Housewife, third edition (1855) by "a lady of Charleston [South Carolina)."

By 1868, the London publishing house of Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer was offering for sale a series of twelve books by Harriet de Salis applying à la mode to everything from soup (Soups and Dressed Fish à la Mode) to dessert (Puddings and Pastry à la Mode).


'À la mode' meaning 'topped with ice cream'

The first Google Books match for à la mode in the sense of "with ice cream topping" in a cookbook published in Berea, Ohio, in 1897. From Ladies of the Methodist Church & Ladies of the G.A.R., Berea Cook Book (December 25, 1897):

PIE A LA MODE

Any kind of fruit pie served with ice cream on top.

It seems unlikely that the ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic and of the Methodist Church in what is now a suburb of Cleveland invented this wording. There is, however, a very real possibility that "[fruit] pie à la mode" in this sense did originate somewhere in the U.S. Midwest, as references to it appear in memoirs set in—or cookbooks or magazines published in—Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Kansas City, Missouri; and Beloit, Wisconsin by the end of 1903. The only Google Books match from this period that mentions fruit pie à la mode in a publication not obviously connected to this region is from an article in American Kitchen Magazine, published in Boston in January 1903.


Conclusions

The phrase à la mode was imported into English as a francophile (and therefore stylish) way of saying "in style." As Peter Shor notes in a comment above (and as the quotation from Pepys's 1667 diary confirms), à la mode was in use in France in the phrase "bouef à la mode" almost certainly before the anglicized "alamode beef" took hold in England.

As for à la mode in the sense of "ice cream topping," that meaning seems to have arisen in the U.S. Midwest by 1897, but not long before.

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I remember reading about the history of this expression just a month ago or so, but for the life of me I don't seem to be able to find the link right now, so I can only answer one half of your question.

Wikipedia says that à la mode in the meaning "with ice cream" was first used in the 1890s by one Mrs. Barry Hall, from whom it got picked up by one Professor Charles Watson Townsend, who was in turn overheard by a reporter for the New York Sun, who then wrote an article about it. "Soon, pie à la mode became a standard on menus around the United States."

Etymonline chooses a more careful wording:

a la mode
1640s, from Fr. à la mode (15c.), lit. "in the fashion". In 17c., sometimes nativized as all-a-mode. Cookery sense of a dessert served with ice cream is 1903, Amer.Eng.

Finally, the PhraseFinder has this:

Americans are familiar with this phrase as meaning 'with ice cream'. There are various stories concerning how this came about but, as they aren't reliably documented, I'll not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that, however the phrase was coined in that context, it had happened by 1903 when it appears in an edition of Everybody's Magazine:

"Tea and buns, apple pie à la mode and chocolate were the most serious menus."

I take this to mean that the story from Wikipedia should be taken with a grain of salt.

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From what I'm reading here, it's somewhat similar to the reason why we call all gelatin JELLO; all cotton swabs QTIPS; all bandages BANDAIDS.

Someone felt that pie with ice cream was fashionably delicious and gave it the name pie à la mode. It sounded cool and it stuck. I think it wasn't meant to mean "ice cream" though the ice cream is what made it fashionable.

That would explain why it also goes for the (of beef) braised in wine, typically with veggies.

It's just a dish jazzed up; made "fashionable"; à la mode!

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You will probably be castigated for quick forms like "y" and "some1" ... At least in THIS group they like standard English to be used. –  GEdgar Sep 26 '12 at 15:19
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@GEdgar I'm less concerned about that (we have people who will edit for style) as the lack of any substantiating facts or references to reliable sources. As it stands this reads as a guess/opinion, not a reliable answer, and is at risk of being downvoted or deleted. –  MετάEd Sep 26 '12 at 15:44

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