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.