In Spanish we adopted the word ambigú somewhere in the 18th century with the sense of "meal with all items served at the same time", with the first text I can find that uses the word dating from 1751. Of course, we adopted the word from French ambigu:

Repas où l'on sert à la fois les viandes et le dessert

The French word seems to come from its previous meaning:

Qui est à plusieurs sens, et par conséquent d'un sens incertain.

I suppose that a meal with the main courses and the desserts served at the same time can be a bit ambiguous. But when was this word used with its sense of "meal" for the first time?

Bonus: is the word ambigu still used in French or has it been replaced by buffet or any other word?

3 Answers 3


I never heard "ambigu" used for a meal before. In France I think we only use it for the meaning "Qui est à plusieurs sens, et par conséquent d'un sens incertain".

But for the meal I found this source (Dictionnaire de l'Académie française p.33 on BNF):

Dictionnaire de L'Académie française, 1st Edition (1694)

AMBIGU, ambigue (Page 33)

AMBIGU, [ambig]ue. adj. Douteux, & qui peut avoir double sens. Ne se dit que des paroles. Response ambiguë. paroles ambiguës. en termes ambigus. les oracles estoient tousjours ambigus.

On appelle quelquefois par raillerie. Un homme ambigu, Celuy qui ne peut pas se determiner, soit pour la croyance, soit pour la profession, ou pour quelque autre chose. Est-il Catholique ou Protestant? est-il de robe ou d'espée? je ne vous le sçaurois dire, c'est un homme ambigu, il demeurera tousjours ambigu.

Ambigu, s. m. Repas où l'on sert en mesme temps la viande & le fruit, ensorte qu'on ne sçauroit dire si c'est un souper ou une collation. On servit un ambigu magnifique.

Ambiguité. s. f. Obscurité dans les mots qui les rend susceptibles d'un double sens. Parlez net & sans ambiguité. il y a tousjours de l'ambiguité dans ce qu'il dit.

Ambigûment ou Ambiguement. adv. D'une maniere ambiguë, equivoque. Il parle, il respond tousjours ambigûment.


(Date à préciser) Du latin ambiguus, de ambigere, (« douter »), de amb (« autour »), et igere (« pour ») agere (« pousser ») ; mot à mot, « qui pousse de deux côtés »

You can find some exemples in this projetbabel topic.

  • Interesting, so the word "ambigu" was first attested with that meaning in a dictionary in 1694. In Spanish it was recorded in a dictionary for the first time in 1770. I suppose that the first uses of the word were in texts from the 17th century in French.
    – Charlie
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 10:09
  • So in French you can distinguish the adjective and the word by how it is use. Commented May 29, 2019 at 10:33
  • 1
    Pour l'étymologie voir aussi au TLFi. Le DHLF dit 1648 pour le « repas entre le déjeuner et le dîner », sans autre précision.
    – user19187
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 19:40
  • @Survenant9r7 DHLF on google books books.google.com/… Commented May 30, 2019 at 6:54
  • Même si Books permettait le survol, pour l'ambigu à part la date il y a peu à se mettre sous la dent...
    – user19187
    Commented May 30, 2019 at 8:53


When was the word "ambigu" first used with the sense of "meal with all items served at the same time"?

The word ambigu used as a noun meaning Repas où l'on sert à la fois les viandes et le dessert can be found before the date mentioned in the question (1751) since we find it in the Mémoire de la vie du comte de Gramont that was written by Antoine Hamilton between 1704 and 1710 and first published in 1713.

Here's the sentence as found in a 19th century reprint:

Souvent c'étoient des ambigus qui partoient aussi de France pour enchérir au milieu de Londres sur les collations du roi.

Hamilton also used the word in another writing that can be found in his complete works:

le couvert avoir été mis dès le grand matin, au jeu de boule; la symmétrie fut dérangée par la précipitation dont on déménagea ; quelques pièces de l'ambigu se perdirent en chemin ; on servit tout de travers, & le vin manqua ;

Those are the earliest occurrences I have found so far, but the word must have been used in French before the 18th century since we find it used in English in the 17th century and the OED says it is borrowed from French. The definition given by the OED is: "An entertainment at which the viands and dessert are served together; or at which a medley of dishes are set on" and there is a quote from the London Gazette dated from 1688:

They were all entertain’d to their Satisfaction, at a very splendid Ambigu. (The London Gazette, 1688)


Is the word ambigu still used in French or has it been replaced by buffet or any other word?

The definition of ambigu used as a culinary term is:

Repas froid où l'on servait à la fois tous les mets et dessert (Grand Larousse).

We note the past tense (on servait), indeed the word isn't used anymore and buffet is the usual word for that type of thing, even if a buffet is not necessarily cold, it often is.


I suppose that a meal with the main courses and the desserts served at the same time can be a bit ambiguous.

I would rather relate ambigu here to its meaning of mélange rather than directly to the adjective ambigu. It is the same use of the noun ambigu as found for a hybrid mix of music:

ariettes, ambigus ou romances tirées des opéras-comiques en vogue (Sainte-Beuve, Les causeries du Lundi)

or in the name of the Théâtre de l'Ambigu-Comique, name given because of the wide variety and mix of theatrical modes staged there.


My fourth great grandfather Colonel the Baron George Frederick Wilhelm von Pfeiltizer genannt Franck, a Russian Courland Prussian officer and Pour le Merit winner who had been drafted by the Duke of York held one of these parties.

It was called a déjeuné à l'ambigu held in Cheltenham in 1810. His military service had been in the French language as de Pfeilitzer due to the military lingua franca of communication between Frederick the Great and FW II and George III and IV and the Duke.

It was featured in a an article cryptically called Fashionable Intelligence what is described as "an elegant collation of every rarity of the season and choicest of wines and entertainment included a Pandean Band and Fantoccinni performance followed by a lengthy dance.

The guest list included a number of the royal mistresses, some very interesting and controversial cultural folk and Irish nobles.

Where would he have got the supplies? There is a possible trace of the ship aptly named the Charlotte Caroline from our family territorial port Windau (Ventpil), Latvia via Copenhagen to London (there is a pirate episode and an unusual addition to the manifest later to Dublin with an unusual detour)- which suggests the meal had elaborate preparation and perhaps kicking off an unusual mission.

The question then is whether he took the concept from France and tailored it for other purposes.

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