Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu?
A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price meal of several courses. In French, however, prix fixe is a more general term that refers to products sold at a fixed price, such as ball bearings, petroleum, taxi rides, and food.
Here’s an example from a French energy website: Avantages et inconvénients des offres de gaz à prix fixes” (“Advantages and disadvantages of gas offers at fixed prices”).
Although a bill of fare that includes several courses at a fixed price can be referred to as a menu à prix fixe in France, it usually appears on a restaurant’s list of offerings as simply a menu or a formule at a specific price
For example (as of this writing), Restaurant La Marée at the port of Grandcamp Maisy in the Calvados region has a three-course Menu à 27 euros. And Le Petit Prince de Paris has a two-course Formule à 18 euros.
Similarly, Les Toqués du Coin in Strasbourg has a two-course, 15.50-euro special called Menu de la semaine, while Les Ombres, the restaurant at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, calls its three-course lunch Formule Déjeuner un Billet > 51,00 € TTC (the price includes taxes and a ticket to the museum).
So how should we spell and pronounce a term like “prix fixe” that’s borrowed from French but has a life of its own in English? Just the way English speakers generally spell it and pronounce it.
It’s the job of lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, to determine standard spellings and pronunciations. All the dictionaries we regularly consult use the French spelling for the term, and all but one of them use only the French pronunciation: PREE-FEEKS (with equal stresses on the syllables).
The exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which also includes the Anglicized PREE-FIKS as a standard pronunciation.
We suspect that many English speakers prefer the French pronunciation because they mistakenly believe that “prix fixe” is the usual term for a meal at a fixed price on menus in France.
It’s not surprising, though, that various Anglicized spellings and pronunciations have shown up. We wouldn’t be shocked to see the PREE-FIKS pronunciation included in more dictionaries, but we don’t expect “prefix” or any of the other variant spellings to become standard in the near future.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to find “prefix” menus online and off, such as the “3 Course Prefix Menu” at Bistro Milano in Manhattan.
In a March 16, 2005, contribution to the Eggcorn Database, a collection of misconstrued word or phrase substitutes, the linguist Arnold Zwicky lists such “prix fixe” spelling variants as “pre-fix,” “pre-fixe,” “prefixe,” “pre-fixed,” and “prefixed.”
Zwicky drily describes “pre-fixe” as a “slightly Frenchier” version of “pre-fix.”
And an April 29, 2013, contribution to the related Eggcorn Forum cites this Facebook comment: “A neighborhood restaurant advertises a ‘prefix’ dinner. Would that include ante-pasto, sub-sandwiches, and semi-cola?”
If you’d like to see some of the variant spellings in the wild, check out these photos in a July 16, 2015, posting to Tumblr.
The English writer Jeanette Winterson once asked a man working at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York why the signboard in front offered a “Pre Fix Menu.”
In a July 11, 2006, entry on her website, she gives his explanation: “ ‘We fix the Specials of the Day every morning,’ he explained, ‘but before we fix those, we fix the set menu of the day, so that’s why it’s called a Pre Fix.’ ”
“So now you know,” Winterson adds with a wink.
We’ll leave it at that, and go on to the etymology of “prix fixe.”
When English borrowed it a century and a half ago, the French phrase meant “fixed-price meal in a restaurant,” according to the OED. That’s still the meaning in English, though the term now has a wider meaning in French.
The dictionary defines “prix fixe” in English today as “a meal served in a hotel or restaurant at a fixed price, typically including several courses” and occasionally “the selection of dishes available for a fixed price.”
At first, “prix fixe” was italicized in English to show its foreign origins, and it’s sometimes still written that way.
The earliest Oxford citation is from the September 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “We had experienced dinners both princely and penurious … and even with unparalleled hardihood had ventured into the regions of the prix-fixe.”
The dictionary’s next example is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of San Francisco in an 1883 issue of the Magazine of Art, an illustrated British periodical:
“You taste the food of all nations in the various restaurants; passing from a French prix-fixe, where every one is French, to a roaring German ordinary where every one is German.”
The OED describes “prix fixe” as a noun that’s frequently used attributively—that is, adjectivally. The dictionary says it’s the same as “a table d’hôte meal” and the opposite of a meal that’s “à la carte.”
We’d add that “table d’hôte” (like “prix fixe”) has different meanings in French and English. In English, “table d’hôte” refers to a restaurant meal at a fixed price, while in French it usually refers to shared dining at a guest house or bed and breakfast.