rumination 3: meal malapropism…

Hello, it’s your cyberspace pedant here with another rumination.

Are Americans unaware that the word entrée means “entry” in French? And thus, the entrée in a multi-course meal is not the “main course,” or le plat principal, but rather a smaller, first course, otherwise known to Americans as the – I dread this word – “appetizer,” or – the less annoying but still dreadful – “starter.”

If you’re in a restaurant that claims to be French yet designates its main courses as entrées, you might be justified in being a little skeptical about just how French your experience will be. You’d be surprised to discover which restaurants perpetuate this nasty malapropism. It’s not likely to be Chez No-Name around the corner. Those tiny bistros and bouchons are usually owned by real French people who can’t afford a PR firm that will feed them cultural inaccuracies. Instead, try Keith McNally’s fabulously popular Pastis in New York, the well-regarded Carlos’ in Highland Park, or the Michelin-starred Melisse in Los Angeles (and there are many, many more). I mean, quelle horreur.  At the time of this posting, all three of those “French” restaurants have incorrectly labeled their main courses as entrées. Of course, I expect corrections any minute now, because I know people like Keith McNally are reading this blog (blunt sarcasm, in case you’re missing the point).

~ by ulterior epicure on August 20, 2009.

13 Responses to “rumination 3: meal malapropism…”

  1. Whenever I’ve heard Americans or American blogs saying entrée I immediately think it’s the starter.

    Since you say ‘starter’ is also annoying, what would you prefer to call it?

  2. @ Lizzie: If it’s a French restaurant, what’s wrong with entrée? If not, then what about “first courses?” Given the trend towards “assemble your meal from a list of half-plates” (think Craft or “small plates restaurants”), it might also make more sense to label them as “smaller plates” and “larger plates.” Of course, now with the proliferation of “ethnic” eateries, we’re getting cultural variations, like “antipasti” and “mezzes,” etc.

  3. Hors d’œuvre of course!

  4. @ Jon: My goodness, you have a tremendous appetite. If most of the first courses I’ve seen are considered hors d’oeurves, what might your main course look like? :)

  5. This bothers the hell out of me as well.

    PS to Lizzie — The first course is called the “appetizer” in America.

  6. @ Sneakeater: It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I usually keep my trap shut because to complain otherwise would make me the twirpy nerd with a rod shoved up his other side. But, to quote a Network great: “I’m mad as h*ll, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” :)

    p.s. – I think Lizzie was asking how, other than by the names ‘appetizer’ and ‘starter,’ would I prefer to refer to the first course.

  7. I think it takes a certain type of person to find the confusion over entree nomenclature frustrating. I, too, am that kind of person.

  8. Sir,
    I believe the proper gender/spelling of “quel horreur” is “quelle horreur”, since horror is, naturally, feminine.

  9. Your confusion arises because “entrée” is both a French word and an English word (borrowed from French). The English and French definitions for the word differ (which isn’t unique for loanwords). As a matter of usage, the meaning of the French word is irrelevant to that of the orthographically identical word in English, which is (according to Merriam Webster) “the main course of a meal in the United States.” It would only be considered a malapropism if one assumed that loanwords must have the same meaning in the borrowing language and the language of origin (which is not the case).

    You’ve pointed to the use of the word in French restaurants in the United States. But — assuming those restaurants are serving mostly English-speaking customers and the menu (another loanword with a difference in meaning, along with a la carte) is in English (as with each of the three restaurants you mention) — the use of entrée to describe the main course is entirely correct. Using entrée in a manner consistent with its French meaning would be confusing or misleading to most English speakers.

    How the usages diverged is quite interesting (and has nothing to do with American unawareness, since entrée entered the English language before entrée came to have its current meaning in French).

  10. Very insightful, s.d. So, how did the usage diverge? And, if English-speakers loaned the word from the French and applied a new meaning, isn’t that a misappropriation of the original?

  11. If you examine the etymology of the words in their respective languages, you will see that the meaning was roughly the same at the time it entered English (though, even then, differences in meal structures between England and France made the usage imperfectly analogous). Since then, there have been nearly three centuries of natural drift in usage, cultural changes impacting meal structures in the respective countries, and of course the divergence of American English from British English (adding another vector for usage drift and cultural differences in meal structure). Short treatments abound on this question. If you’re interested enough to poke around, you might be able to find a fuller study.

    The ability to track the etymologies of the words back to a point when they were closer in meaning is really beside the point, though. A word’s meaning occurs within the language, even for a loanword that’s homonymous as of the time of borrowing. This is much more apparent in the borrowing of English words into other languages (e.g., Japanese). Japanese use of homonymous loanwords may provide us with giggles, at times; but once the word is taken into their language, our giggles are no more justified than they would be at less etymologically related homonyms across languages — e.g., a Swede who says “sex” (six) or “slut” (end).

  12. good stuff s.d. – have you read A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History? if not, i think you would find it interesting.

  13. UE, I just discovered your wonderful site today and, like a moth to a flame, was drawn to “meal malapropism.” This is one that has bothered me for decades. It’s nearly as high on my list of horrors as the American habit of referring to Afternoon Tea as High Tea. That is a topic I will be addressing soon in my brand-new blog, The Delightful Repast, If you have a few spare moments to pop in, I would value your comments. A person discerning enough to quibble over meal malapropisms is a person I can respect!

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