What is an “Entree”?

By Maeve Maddox

Someone asked me why Americans use the word entree to refer to the main course of a dinner, while in French and in British usage, entrée refers to a dish served before the main course. The unspoken criticism was that, when it comes to matters of language, Americans always get things wrong.

Words change their meanings over time. Even in French.

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.”

The OED dates the earliest English use of the word entree with a culinary meaning at 1759:

1759 W. VERRAL Cookery 46 Roasted ham. For this entrée is generally provided a new Westphalia or Bayonne ham

By the 19th century, the “entree” referred to the third course of a meal:

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

Up until World War I, in France, Britain, and the United States, the word entree retained the meaning of “a substantial meat course served after the soup/fish and before the roast.”

Eating habits change. A huge meal with numerous meat dishes is no longer the norm.

In the United States, by the 1930s, the meaning of the word entree began to include fish and chicken dishes. It did, however, continue to mean a substantial prepared hot dish that was satisfying enough to be the main thing eaten before dessert. Today we can speak of vegetarian and vegan entrees.

In France, also in the 1930s, entrée took on the meaning of a light course of eggs or seafood served at the beginning of the meal.

According to the OED, the meaning of entree is

A ‘made dish’, served between the fish and the joint.

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.

Are the Americans really the only ones who have “got it wrong”?

You can find a really thorough history of the evolution of “entree,” complete with menus, here.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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24 Responses to “What is an “Entree”?”

  • Jon

    It all just goes to show that language is an evolving thing, with different areas of language evolving at different rates in different places, and in different directions.

    “Wrong” becomes a question of which branch of the evolutionary language tree you are sitting on… and which branch you are looking at… 🙂

  • Maeve

    Jon,
    Well put.

  • thebluebird11

    Why can’t we all just get along LOL
    I minored in French in college and have always felt that our (American) use of the word “entree” to mean “main course” was off. Strictly speaking, I would imagine it should be the first thing to be brought to the table, whether accompanied by fanfare or not. “Appetizer” would also seem to be a misnomer, since first of all, once you eat the appetizer, you pretty much have killed your appetite (and are ready to take the rest of the meal home in a doggie bag), and second of all, speaking at least for myself, the appetizer portions at restaurants these days often are meals in themselves. For example, I often eat at Ruby Tuesday’s, where they have an “appetizer” of potstickers. There are 6 of them served with a dipping sauce. I will often order their salad bar plus this “appetizer,” and that is my entire meal. Which is the entree? Which is the appetizer? Who knows, who cares. I am lucky if I have room for dessert! (not that I need it).

  • Vic

    This is quite interesting.

  • Barbara Youree

    Loved your entrée article. No mention of hors d’oeuve, which is fine, but it brought to mind how a sophisticated friend of mine used to pronounce the word. He referred to the appetizer as ordures, which, of course, in French means “garbage!” (I never corrected his pronunciation.)

  • Emma

    I agree with Jon about the view of what “wrong” is … I also think (despite being British!) that US vocab is often more accurate – as it’s often based on older usages that we’ve since stopped (e.g. using ‘gotten’ as the past tense of ‘get’ rather than using ‘got’)

    Also agree that the starter/entree/appetizer’s often so big you don’t need the main/entree/whatever.

    Maybe that’s why “amuse bouche” have started to become popular in the UK – they’re very wee & can’t possibly fill you up! (Or go with a liquid aperitif!)

  • mailav

    very informative, thanks for share

  • venqax

    Interesting history of the term. It also does a very good job of illustrating a problem withe English in general. Namely, the rather irritating habit of adopting foreign words for things for which there are perfectly good English words already. In particular, the affectation of adopting French words because of the Hastings-induced and seemingly incurrable notion that French sounds more “classy” than English does; especially to the bourgeoisie– I mean– middle class.

    Call it a “main course” for crying out loud! Americans insist on calling rocket “arugala” (Italian, but the same applies), cemetaries can just be graveyards, cilantro is corriander leaves, a jalapeno is an Anaheim pepper, du jour means “of the day”– this needs translation?. A la mode means “with ice cream”– a uniquely American meaning that the phrase doesn’t even HAVE in French. Joie de vive is zest for life, je ne c’est quoi is something I can’t put into words- but I just did, in English, with no problem. An objet d’art is probably NOT anything artisic, but a pseudo-art object. In fact, there are not that many niches (rhyming with itches) that English is simply at a loss to fill without the intrusion of francais or other languages.

  • clarice

    but what does it mean still???

  • venqax

    Speaking for General American, it means “main course”. Period. There is no confusion about that. Every general American knows that. No one in Boston, NYC, Kansas City, LA or Seattle is going to look at a menu and say, ” I thought meat loaf was an appetizer”. Whatever it used to mean, or means in France, where they are speaking a different language, BTW, or what it means in the UK are either historical questions or for them to answer.

  • Robin

    Very interesting. I’ve been baffled by the use of the word “entree” for years!

    As a nation famous for it’s no nonsense attitude to most things in life, the way this word is used in the US is odd. Why don’t you just say “main course”? I thought it was the British that had a reputation for flowery language and complicated eating habits …

  • venqax

    Agree 100% Robin. As many of my posts here show, I’m alway fighting against the unnecessary and often affected adoption of foreign words and phrases for things that have perfectly good English equivalents. Main course is perfect and means just what it says without any mystification. Likewise, love or joy for life, art object (often used facetiously), pen-name, entry hall/way, crescent roll, etc. OTOH, if there really is no English word for something, fine. I don’t know what else you’d call a bidet if you felt the need to address one, or sushi, or baklava. I’m not against innovation, just against overly-complicating or obfuscating communication.

  • Geoff Blair

    I left the US for Australia in 1975. I don’t remember using the word entree for the main meal at that time. I do remember visiting my family in the 1990’s and after looking through items on the menu ordered (without a word of clarification from the waiter) what I thought was an entree and a main meal. What I got was two main meals!

  • Crystal

    What irritates me is that so many accuse Americans of not using entree properly. While many words evolve over time, there are standards and correct usages! The only time I have ever heard the word entree to be used other than for its proper meaning at mealtime, is in Australian cuisine. I’ve lived in America all my life and we ‘Americans’ use entree properly. As for the Australians, their life down under is quite different, so I say give them a break. No one would poke fun. Not sure why so many are pointing the finger at Americans.

  • mary

    Speaking as an educated Australian, as most of us are, I get the
    shivers when people use words contrarily to their meaning.”Entree”
    means “entrance” and has been used since 1749,at least, in the UK to mean the dish eaten before (or as an entrance to) the main course. With three courses, this is the first course, which in Australia is still a light dish. In your examples you don’t seem to realise that the joint was always the main dish, regardless of how many other dishes were around it. Maybe “entree” evolved to “main course” in the U.S.of A. because the first course got so big there was no need for another course after it.
    Another thought- why do Americans serve the salad as a separate course?

  • venqax

    Serving salad separately? Who knows? You’ve got salad entrees now. These customs evolve differently in different places and I don’t know that you could ever find much “reason” for any of it? Why divide meals into courses to begin with? Doesn’t someone or other serve salad AFTER the main meal? What sense does that make. Digestively it’s completely backwards– tho I am sure no one knew that when the custom was instated. As someone on another thread pointed out, citing a word’s– especially a foreign word’s– original meaning as authority for its current use can be the “etymological fallacy”. Just because entree meant entrance or entry doesn’t necessarily mean anything regarding what it has come to mean. In the USA, entree has meant main course for my entire life and I’m no youngster.

    Altho, it is MOST often used in contrast with side dishes, as opposed to other “courses” served separately. E.g., you eat steak, a baked potato, and green beans, the stake was the entree, while the potatoes and beans were “sides”. You eat spaghetti and meatballs and whatever else, then spaghetti and meatballs was the entree and the other was a side. Still, if you look on a restaurant menu it will list Soups, Salads, Appetizers, Entrees, Deserts. The Entrees are going be considered “main courses”. No one will mistake artichoke dip for a main course or meat loaf for an appetizer.

  • VAL JAYAKODDY

    Does it really matter what word is used? It’s what is on the plate that really matters – not what it is called! Words evolve, language evolves and if everyone in their own country knows the meaning then what does it matter which term is used in other countries…you just have to be careful what you order if you visit!

    In the UK the ordinary fok as opposed to the upper classes – still refer to meals as breakfast, dinner, tea which is later followed by supper…….and dessert is always called pudding…..what could be simpler?

  • venqax

    Well, breakfast, lunch, and dinner would be simpler. That’s just 3 things. And of coures tea doesn’t really mean “tea” and desert certainly has wider possibilities than pudding (which the Brits have all wrong anyway).

  • What the hell is arugula??

    I understand your points, Venqax, but I have a contrary view.

    The American use of the term “entree” is confusing and unnecessary. As you have said, words change, and it’s about time this word did change.

    Let’s use a little commons sense, Americans don’t (or shouldn’t) live in a bubble. I’ve noticed that in the sophisticated coastal cities, the use of the term “entree” has diminished significantly in the past few years.

    Hopefully the change continues.

  • venqax

    Who does it confuse? Every American knows an entree as a main course. It says so on every frozon dinner sold in the country and every restaurant menu from Miami to Anchorage. Altho i would certainly agree it is entirey unneeded as “main course” does just fine. I spend a lot of time on the coast and haven’t noticed the change you speak of. And I think Swanson’s will have more say about this than “sophistacates”, who and where ever they are suppposed to be.

    On the subject of superfluous foreignisms I agree with what I assume your handle says. Why the hell call it arugala? I think the perfectly good English word for the stuff is rocket (?). Is saying arugala supposed to be “sophisticated”, too? How many languages should be required for someone to order dinner in regular restaurant?

  • Tamer

    Entree was called entree because it was the first dish served not because there was meat in it.

    It is not the word that changed its meaning but it is what people eat as entree aka the first dish of a three course menu.

    I think Americans use the word easily because they don’t really think what it really means. If back in the 17th century they called the meat dish as Starter instead of using a French word I seriously doubt that Americans would still call the main dish as Starter although it is the second dish in the course.

  • venqax

    In the US (don’t know about elsewhere) there is dish known as shrimp scampi. Sometimes, something else will substitute for the shrimp, e.g. lobster scampi. Point is, scampi is simply Italian for shrimp. Shrimp scampi, then, is as redundant as lobster scampi is nonsensical. But, for better or worse, in English scampi has come to mean a dish of unspecified seafood sautéed in butter and garlic. Or maybe even hamburger scampi would pass.
    I don’t doubt most Americans don’t know what entrée means in French, but I also don’t know that it would matter. And the history given in the post intro shows that the history of the word is much more complex than just meaning a first course. Maybe this is a good warning against unnecessary foreignisms. French ones, in particular, don’t usually come with any added value. Main course. Done.

  • Jezzer

    The British outside of French or fancy restaurants use starter/main/dessert. French do entree/plats/dessert, but normally don’t have plats and split it up into meant, fish and poultry (viande, poisson and poulet).

    The history of American language is one of non-english speaking immigrants learning and speaking english. If you look at the immigration numbers very few of them, particularly during the later mass migrations were from England or were native English speakers. I think this explains why American english is a medley of unusual pronunciations and words. The english word diagonal is replaced by “kitty corner” which is a chinese whispers version of quatre corner (French would actually be quatre coins). Herbs are pronounced the French way and vitamins are pronounced the German way. Also American spellings of English words often use “z”s, very few English words use “z”s, it shows the German influence in the language. Gesundheit is another German word that has become part of the language, yet not in English.

    I agree that American language isn’t wrong and has evolved in its own isolated way, like marsupials in Australia or lemurs in Madagascar. Language in Europe is less isolated and current “correct” pronunciations are propagated. I do think it is wrong to compare American English with English, since American English evolved at the hands of non-english speakers and is its own thing.

  • John

    @venqax Scampi are not the same species as “shrimp” or prawns. Scampi look like small lobsters or crayfish (species name: Nephrops norvegicus). Italians certainly don’t call prawns or “shrimp” scampi. If you go to Italy and order a main dish of pasta with scampi, you’ll find a different species of crustacean in your dish. This definition of scampi applies to all commonwealth and Mediterranean countries.

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