Word Court

By Barbara Wallraff

DAVID WILLIAMS, of London, England, writes, "Growing up in Montreal, where French and English mingle more than they do in many places, I was accustomed to ordering an entrée before the main course, even on English-language menus. When I moved to the States, I found that the entrées in fact were the main course and that an appetizer whetted the palate. Now that I'm in London, I can't find entrées anywhere and have to be content with starters. Can you comment on the seemingly strange usage of entrée in the United States?"

Either some of my sources are mistaken or everyone has been waffling on the meaning of this word. In French, in non-culinary contexts, entrée of course means things like "entry" and "beginning," so it's unsurprising to find that the classic mid-nineteenth-century French dictionary Littré defined the culinary entrée as a dish served at the outset of a meal. However, by the mid twentieth century the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary was reporting that an entrée is "in French usage, a dish served between the chief courses." The same dictionary went on to say that "in English usage" the word refers to "a rather elaborate made dish served before the roast, such as creamed sweetbreads, a fruit fritter, or a timbale; also the course in which it is served," and that "in hotel usage" an entrée is "a meat dish not classed as a roast; also a meat substitute, such as macaroni and cheese." This last idea is probably where the now standard American sense, "the main course of a meal," came from, as most of us stopped demanding fish and an entrée and roasted meat, plus soup and dessert, on a typical evening. Indeed, by the mid twentieth century other American dictionaries were giving "main course" as an alternative meaning for entrée.

The English starter, by the way, is an upstart. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it colloquial, and some of its citations, all dating from 1966 to 1979, are contemptuous: for instance, "There was avocado pear for what some people disgustingly called 'starters.'" All the same, starter has begun to appear in American dictionaries as a synonym for appetizer, without any notation about its being either British or cheesy.

KRISTINA NILSSON, of Newton, Massachusetts, writes, "In nearly every current book I read, the author has somewhere benightedly used the word crescendo to describe an arrival rather than a process. For instance, in the New York Times best seller In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, I read, 'Their physical torments had reached a terrible crescendo.' As a professional musician, I take umbrage. Crescendo is a term meaning to travel from, say, a pianissimo to a fortissimo, and at the end of a crescendo one might be said to have arrived at a climax."

Thanks for spelling out the problem so clearly. Although the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and P. G. Wodehouse have written crescendo where they meant the peak rather than the approach to it, a number of language authorities frown on this usage.

THOMAS L. HOLLADAY, of Arlington, Virginia, writes, "Here in Washington, D.C., I have observed the increased misuse of the title General in addressing the present Attorney General—as in 'General Ashcroft.' I was a consul general for several years in three different countries but was never addressed as General. If 'General Ashcroft' is correct, does it follow that we so address the other civilian generals: Surgeon, Solicitor, Comptroller, Director, and so forth? Or should we reserve the title for military generals?"

You're right that John Ashcroft is sometimes called "General Ashcroft." For instance, President George W. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, referred to the Attorney General that way in November, and Secretary of State Colin Powell did so in December. You're right, too, that this usage is wrong.

In fact, even in military usage general was originally an adjective. Time was, that is, when brigadier general and major general were understood as terms parallel to consul general and attorney general; all these terms, as Steven Pinker notes in his book Words and Rules, "were borrowed from French when England was ruled by the Normans in the centuries after the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066." In French most descriptive adjectives are used "postpositively," or after the noun, though this word order is relatively rare in English. Thus our military noun and military title arose through misunderstanding. By now they've won legitimacy—but only in military usage. Anyone in the U.S. Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps above the rank of colonel may properly be called General, but no civilian should be.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/word-court/302456/