Q: I’m doing French-English restaurant translations, and I have a question about the word “entrée.” It means a first course in French, and it’s used this way in British English. But in American English, it means a main course. How did this all come about?
A: In French, as you mention, an “entrée” is a starter dish or first course. But that’s not what the word meant in English when we adopted it in the mid-18th century.
The English borrowing originally meant a “made dish” (or prepared dish) “served between the fish and the joint,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
A big family dinner in 19th-century London, for example, might have consisted of soup, fish, entrée, joint (that is, roast), and sweet.
The OED still defines “entrée” in the original English sense of the word (a dish “served between the fish and the joint”), but the dictionary doesn’t include any published references for this usage since 1901.
Another British reference, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, defines “entrée” as “the main dish of a meal, or a dish served before the main course – used in restaurants or on formal occasions: an entrée of roast duck.”
That sounds much like the way the word is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “the main dish of a meal” as well as a “dish served in formal dining immediately before the main course or between two principal courses.”
This suggests to me that the word “entrée” (it’s often seen without the accent) can mean pretty much the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic – at least sometimes. A bit of googling, however, finds that Brits are a lot more inclined than Americans to use “main course” when they mean main course.
I can’t account for the original divergence in the French and English meanings. The French considered an “entrée” to be an introduction to the meal as a whole. I’m only speculating, but it may be that the English considered an “entrée” to be the opening act for the MAIN dish (the roast), not the entire meal.
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the later use of “entrée” to mean a main course “developed from the sense of a dish served between the main courses.”
Comparing the Chambers and OED entries, it looks as though the modern sense of “entrée” as the main course may be a relatively recent development – perhaps late 19th or early 20th century.
PS: My big Web II dictionary from the 1950s says the “made dish” served before the roast might consist of something like “creamed sweetbreads, a fruit fritter, or a timbale.” Sounds labor-intensive!