Reviewing a restaurant called The Marrow this past Tuesday, the New York Post observed, “Many choices — starters $12 to $16, mains $24 to $33 — are dense with butter.” The latest issue of Cooking Light magazine, on my coffee table, has an article called “Skillet Mains.” Reviewing a book in its February 2013 issue, Library Journal says the author “shares recipes for breakfasts, mains, sides, snacks, drinks, and sweets.”

I started hearing main as a sort of familiar nickname for “main course”  a couple of years ago. I had the sense that it was a NOOB, and it is, but before that it was an Australianism.  A roundup  in the (Melbourne) Sunday Herald Sun in April 1991 notes about various restaurants: “Mains about $10”; “Mains about $10”; “Mains from $7.50”; and “Mains such as kang daeng (red beef curry with coconut milk) from $11.95 to $14.95.”

The New York Times, in a 1994 travel piece about Queensland, gave the word the telltale quotation-mark treatment, indicating that it was unfamiliar to the author but commonly used by the locals: “The standard ‘mains’ are an eclectic  selection, from a vegetable couscous to Thai-style green chicken curry and beer-battered fish and chips.”

Possibly the word gained currency in Oz because of the way the local accent can stretch out its vowel. But that is speculation. What’s clear is that it had arrived in Britain by 1996, when the New Statesman noted of a restaurant, “The set-price menu offers three starters, three mains, and three desserts.” Mains didn’t show up in The Times (the London one) till 2003, but quickly became the accepted term in its restaurant reviews. The New York Times didn’t adopt it (in describing a domestic restaurant) until 2008, when it described a San Francisco restaurant as having “hearty mains like Miyazaki filet mignon ($48) or loin of kurobuta (pork) with eggplant dengaku ($20).”

Enough for now. For some reason, I feel like I need a snack.



12 thoughts on ““Main”

  1. Yes, “mains” are indeed a staple of the great Australian diet. Sometimes you will hear “main meal” (“And for our main meal we had duck à l’orange…”), which has always struck me as the nec plus ultra of vulgarity.

    1. Main course, main meal…two different things, normally. The main course is invariably a subset of the main meal, even if it’s the only course (mathematically speaking). Both terms are common in the U.S.A.

  2. Oh, come, “mains” has been used in the UK even in the 70s, most usually about restaurants with table service (which, perversely, sometimes include Wimpy, because some Wimpies had table service).

  3. I would have thought that “main course” was more common in the UK until recently. I still can’t quite get my head around the main course being called an entree in the US – what is the story behind that?

  4. Re. “The set-price menu offers three starters, three mains, and three desserts.” This seems like something I might write. Since I wouldn’t be using “course” with the starters and desserts, I’d likely lop it off “main courses” merely for consistency in the phraseology.

  5. “For some reason, I feel like I need a snack.”
    Shouldn’t that be “For some reason, I feel a bit peckish”?

    1. Good catch, Sheldon. I missed that. One would expect an English professor to have said, “For some reason, I feel /as if/ I need a snack.”

      1. I suppose this is an example of how the spoken language dictates evolution of the written language.

  6. Rollinat – that’s an interesting one. “entrée” in the French culinary tradition represented a course that came between two of the other courses. in the 19th century the Main Course was usually a large roast which was brought out whole and then carved up at the table, and there would usually be an “entree” between the starter and the main.

    The main course disappeared at some point in the early 20th century – and while most of the world shunted everything back one course, renaming what was the entrée the main and calling the hors d’oeuvre the entrée, the US left everything with the names it had and removed the main course.

    (The Wikipedia version of this post is much better…)

  7. I’ve been aware of main for as long as I can remember.
    I do recall a flurry of Australianisms entering the language as a result of the popularity of Aussie daytime soaps Neighbours and Home and Away, with Uni[versity] and Dag sticking in mind.

    Later afdter working with lots of Aussies in the CIty I noticed myself unconciously picking up their own version of rhyming slang, which invariably involved taking an established rhyme and shortening it then adding an o at the end.
    So a septic (tank = yank) became a seppo etc.

  8. “main course”>”main” is less exceptionable than French, where ‘plat principal’ (“main dish”) gets shortened on bistrot menuboards to ‘plat’ (“dish”).

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