Often an idiom, “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its parts,” can seem like something from “Alice in Wonderland.” One of the most colorful such idioms combines the profane with a language associated with love.
“Pardon my French,” or “excuse my French,” is an apology for the use of profanity; the expression dates from 1895. Pardon is derived from the old French pardoner meaning, “to grant, forgive.”
So why not “Pardon my German” or “Excuse my Mandarin?” One explanation suggests that during the 19th century, the English often used French words in conversation – a foreign language to most people living in England at the time. Realizing the listener may not have understood, the speaker would apologize by saying, “Pardon my French.”
Why did the phrase become associated with profanity? That’s an enigma. Perhaps the collective knowledge of you, our readers, can provide some insight. What do you think is the reason? Let us know.
In days gone by, the English and the French were not on very good terms. Perhaps the English considered ANY phrase in French to be profane.
That’s not part-answer, that’s more like writing a post for the sake of it!
Perhaps it’s becuase it is/was considered impolite to speak in a language unfamiliar to those around you (as they may think that you are carrying on about them) and it is also considered impolite to use profanity.
I wonder if maybe you answer your own question: try and name five profanities, right off the top of your head, right this second that aren’t sexual slang of some form. Not easy, is it? French being the language of love?
It’s a stretch I know, but it’s the best theory I can personally think of.
In the 19th century (just as now), it was consider impolite to speak in a language that was not understood by the person you are speaking to. So whenever someone spoke in french during a conversation, they would apologize for it. As the language barrier blended and everyone began to speak English the term most likely was simply carried on to excuse the use of words that were impolite to speak.
Perhaps at one time it was common for English speakers to bowdlerise their profanity by substituting the juicy words with their French counterparts. Where we would now say “The politicians can go to Hell, pardon my profanity” one might have said “The politicians can all go to diable, pardon my French”.
Political/social/financial ascendency in Europe has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Wars and annexations have made some countries bigger and more powerful, while others have fallen apart and out of the limelight. Most people in America are aware of the Italian and Spanish spheres of influence, but other countries may surprise with their historical periods of power. For a while, much smaller Portugal was more influential than Spain. In the late 1600s, Sweden almost controlled all of Europe. For a while, even the tiny Netherlands was a force to be reckoned with. Into the 19th century it became France’s turn to be at the top of the heap, at least socially. French cuisine, French couture, the French language became the language of diplomacy.
Geographically, it is not surprising that an English expression of disdain refers to France. They wouldn’t be much influenced by Iceland or China. England has been socially, financially and politically influenced by France since long before the Robin Hood era following the French conquest in 1066, almost always to the disadvantage of England. There has been simmering antipathy against the French for centuries. When France again rose to social prominence in the 1800s, it caused these feelings to bubble up more strongly.
It is difficult to say whether or not French hubris and arrogance was actually worse than that of other countries, when they were transcendent, but they were the ones closest and most obvious to the English. You don’t worry about the guy who lives on the next block when you have a jerk living next door who plays loud music, outside, late at night. The language of diplomacy quickly became the language of arrogance, not to be spoken in strait-laced Victorian Britain.
In one of Agatha Christie’s books about the French speaking detective, Hercule Poirot, he was cavalierly dismissed by a police inspector who described him as an irritating little Frog. Christie has her character distance himself from the French by insisting that he is not an irritating little Frog, he is an irritating litle Belgian. Even innocent phrases like bon jour (good day), were treated as profane. Englishmen were conditioned to feel that anything French was base and filthy. Venereal diseases were called the French Affliction, so, when an Englishman lapsed into a bit of profanity, he was just doing what the French did all the time. Thus, the concept of “pardon my French” came into being.
This was quite a terse article, but be that as it may, I rather enjoyed it.
Likely being a British expression; when one used a profanity it was excused when blamed on the (enemy?) French.
[...] “Pardonuts Moi, Begnets,” who’s the idiom today? — Don’t call me enigma, Whitey. — What’s more Macho Mandarin, Jose? — Can’t chu see dat Alice — Chi don’t live here know anymore. — Somewhere lost in Wonderland or some other restaurant from before — when other problems of overcoming perception and deception — held sway on Lincoln’s Lap. — Now when anything is nutsy we know nothing — Except that this time calls for a Nap. –>>L.T.Rhyme –“Merde! Oui?”–>>J.J.Rousseau [...]
the language of the French was and is the language of sex false love
My theory is a combination of what has already been said:
Using French words/phrases were doubly offensive as
1. the other person did not know the meaning of what was being said, so it was impolite
2. Using French (the language of the arch enemies) was more offensive than using any other language.
With time it came to represent any offensive comment/words/phrases.
This is of course theory and no one knows!
I think Lynn may have been closest. The chauvinism of England and continental Europe up to the present (or near present, though I supposed it waxes and wanes) can be best expressed in what we would call ‘putdowns’. Seems, it is a pretty common human characteristic or foible to reinforce the ‘us’ by diminishing the ‘other’. Pardon my ….er Canadian.
Maybe because conversational French employs “vulgar” words fairly casually. Calling someone “con” or “conne” (stupid) in French is quite normal. However literally it translates to calling someone the C-word. So when you say ” You forgot the tickets? Tes conne!” – it literally reads “you C”. But it means more, ” How stupid of you!”
Perhaps this casualness of employing vulgar terms gives some meaning to ” Pardon my French”. On the other hand, if you look at French literature and films from De Sade to Gaspar Noé – one might agree that the French have often produced some of the most sexual and violent works art in history. So perhaps its also something in the frankness of the culture that the english found vulgar or profane.
French was the international language of Victorian times — all well-educated people spoke French, so you could go almost anywhere in Europe and communicate in French, and French phrases were commonly used in conversations in both England and America. If you were speaking to someone less well-educated, however, and accidentally used a French phrase they didn’t understand, it was polite to apologize for it.
Profanity was something men were never supposed to utter in front of women, and so women weren’t supposed to know what it meant if someone did utter some in front of them (since they had supposedly never heard it before). Some naive men may have believed they could pass off the profanity as a foreign language, especially if the woman or women in question didn’t know French, and since “Pardon my French” was already commonly used it seemed natural.
However, most people, male AND female, understood that it was a polite euphemism allowing you to apologize indirectly for using profanity. (Since you weren’t supposed to use profanity in front of women, you could hardly admit you’d done so by apologizing for it! Thus apologizing for your use of “French” allowed you to save face.)
@Lynn Mannix, it makes sense.
Profundity is always under funded or denied, leaving it to those
amauteurs mixing metaphors about who lied. Was it Arcane
to have once killed Abel? Or has the language simply changed
Could it be a curse or profanity that makes profundity profane?
I’m thinking of a two can play that game twist. My guess is that English people who spoke French to those they knew couldn’t understand it, did so (most likely) to show off. “I’m better than you. I’m more educated. Opps, you can’t understand me? Pardon my French. I just can’t help myself. I’m so sophisticated.” Tired of being belittled, maybe some folks began to mock overinflated egos by using words everyone can understand and ending a string of vulgarities with the same insincere apology. If this were the context, it would have been pretty hilarious when it started, rocketing the phrase to popularity among those who want some vengeance (and a little fun). Thus a mockery eventually becomes a commonly used phrase even when the original context fades. That’s my theory.
How would one translate this phrase into French?
It became associated with profanity, because it was perceived that French had a vulgar sound to it, considering its nasalizing and phlegm-inducing pronunciations, compared to what the English perceived as their civilized, gentle-sounding language.
I like many of these general explanations, but perhaps it’s a bit more specific. I realized in French class that the English a-word for butt (which non-profanely means donkey) sounds similar to the French word for “sit”(s’asseoir). Maybe this is how it got its profane usage. Therefore, by saying a** instead of “butt”, “bottom”,etc., one kind of uses French. Am I making sense?
*************The real reason is very simple.**************
The “F” word in English is pronounced the same way as the word for the animal the “seal” is in french….in french the word for a “seal” is “phouque”…which is pronounced “F*%K……I’m surprised at all the weird theories….
You are Welcome…
It may date back to the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century. People of Russian high society who were accustomed to using French no longer allowed each other to use it after the French invasion. The English were still a common enemy of the French at that point and keenly opposed to the growth of their empire. Due to the great influence French culture had over Europe at that period of time, many educated people used the language in foreign countries. At that period of time using French at social occasions was frowned upon and by avoiding it and scolding others who used it, one would be showing support for their own country; patriotism meant ostracizing the French language. This view of French as profane may have prevailed through the years as an idiom.
This is all Greek to me.
probably because the level by which love is vividly expressed in French is close to being erotic which some people find to be repulsive. Therefore, to many “French” connotes a certain degree of profanity.
don’t you use it when you swear…???
I always thought that it was to excuse using _uck, which has the same pronunciation as a seal in French (phoque) – allowing the speaker to act as those they werespeaking French rather than swearing. It then was expanded to all profanity.
The French are very casual and laid back when it comes to profanity, they couldn’t care less if you just blasted the F bomb repeatedly and without mercy while talking about the ticket you’d got on your way to work. Of course, many other countries find the words offensive, and so when they’re uttered they are instently apologized for (usually).
The apology isn’t for the use of profanity so much as for the french casuality of saying it.
There used to be a long-standing rivalry between the British and French, going back many, many centuries and this saying was often used to imply that the French were vulgar people and that anything that comes out of their mouths was to be considered offensive, so if a British person used profanity he/she was considered to be speaking French and then had to apologise using the phrase, “Excuse my French”. It’s a saying that unfortunately stuck and is still used today, despite it’s prejudiced context.
I’VE GOT IT! I know I’ve got it. I’d be willing to bet a hundred US dollars.
Yes, the English-speakers would use French words and would apologize to the less sophisticated audiences. When using vulgarities, the apology became a kind of ironic reversal. In other words, they were saying, I’m sorry because you may not be as gutter-talking as I am.”
This “explanation” is utter rubbish (in fact I’ve yet to read a convincing one on this site). Come on, think about it logically – the people who were fluent enough in French to smatter their conversations with it would have spent most of their time speaking to other people who were equally well educated, so no apology would have been necessary. And if they had done it in a conversation with someone who didn’t speak French, the chances are they would have done so deliberately, to show off, and wouldn’t have cared about apologising.
The real reason is that, for much of history, British English attributed a number of things in life which were unpleasant (especially things related to sex) to France, including STDs and pornography (. Swearing is simply an extension of this. Add this to the fact that swearing (particularly in front of women) WAS something that required an apology, and voila. You have a euphemistic apology which also gets in a dig at those pesky French.
Yeah… That wouldn’t happen to be an educated antiphrasis that the simple xenophobic masses misinterpreted?
This was because, the English Aristocracy- who were very often in Paris or had Emigres who were close friends fell into the habit of exclaiming in French!
Hence if an Aristo or Emigre went “Mon Dieu!” or “Zut alore!” He had to politely follow it with “pardon my French”- because he hadn’t used the usual “Oh My God!” or “Oh the heavens above!” (because we have the most dramatique exclamations no?)
As the exclamations became less savoury- the association became that the profanity was somehow French. Just a historical mix-up!
Just discovered this idiomatic sentence! Not the slightest hint on its origin, but I dare say as a French girl, I love this discussion!
To curse in french would be more socially acceptable than to use English in polite society
Wow! I always thought that since the word ‘bitch’ is French, people just used that expression to forgive their use of any profanity.
The French were reviled, as they had ruled England. Notice that meat on the table is French, e.g. Mutton, Filet Mignon, but on the hoof it has an English form such as sheep, or cow. During that time, the French got to eat it and the English got to take care of it. Would that not be repulsive if you were the care taker and only knew English, but someone spoke to you in French?
C’est tout du chinois!
Growing up in Canada, I was always led to believe or came to believe that it was simply due to the French word, ‘phoqie’ which means the marine mammal ’seal’ but which is pronounced identically to the f-word in English. Didn’t think that this was a big stretch … but reading your article makes me realize that it might be a folk etymology of the phrase.
Typo phoqie > phoque. And just saw the same answer four answers above mine, also with a typo in the word phoque; we must not even want to write the French word for the sound correctly! LOL
While “Pardon my French” had real and necessitated origin in England, just as the prologue describes, the modern American use to excuse profane words has nothing to do with the French language. It is an American style of humor to deviate from the context of commonly acceptable speech. Thus, it is a play on words, on the older idiom, as if to say, “You must have misunderstood what I said; it was French” when all listeners know that the choice word was foul.
And so followed copy-cat use of the statement to such a frequency that its new users were not even sure why they had been saying it other than the fact that the general population understood its implied meaning.
It is an ironic excuse that is either meant to be merely humorous, or it is used sarcastically to devalue the listener’s sense of propriety. The former usage is analogous to inviting a young lady into one’s “mansion” that is really a basement apartment, the latter usage recalls the Texan’s reply to the British waiter’s admonishment that “in England we do not end our sentence’s with prepositions”.
OH,CALCUTTA !.. was a nude musical from the 60’s. Its title sounds the same as “Oh, What a (nice) ass !” translated from the French:” O, quel que t’as.” Pardon my spelling. KevMFW
What I have recently inferred about this expression is that it may come from an old story about one of Napoleon’s generals, Pierre Cambronne, who, if I’m not mistaken, led his troops at Waterloo (you can see where this is going) when he found himself completely surrounded by the British, at which time he muttered to himself the french, “merd”, or “quel merd”, thereby giving way to the expression “mot de cambronne” (or “cambronne’s term”, in English) for when one is refraining from employing profanity. The idiom, “pardon my french”, may’ve evolved from that early expression and M. Cambronne’s classic classless reaction to sure defeat. imo
I believe that it is more closely related to the viewpoint that in England discussion of things sexual was more repressed, and it was viewed that France was less so. So any expression seen as dirty would be attributed to the other. However the insulting / national references went both ways. In England going back to at least the 1800’s (one ref: “The Pearl”, Victorian erotic journal collected in paperback volume ISBN 0-345-25293-4) a condom was referred to as a “French Letter” while in France it was referred to as an “English Raincoat”.
I’ve lived in Paris for 10 years. I think docfon’s comment about how love is expressed in France is true. The French revel in their sexuality and I think that’s refreshing and natural. It’s part of being human. It only becomes repulsive when people use sex to abuse, control or harm others (i.e. the catholic church scandal).
I wonder if it was not to hide the fact that they were swearing. Pardon my french, meaning I just said a word and I want to pretend it was a foreign word that you don’t know, maybe make the listener think they misheard…
This is somewhat off the subject, but it’s in the same ballpark. When we English speakers don’t understand something that someone says, especially if the person uses arcane or scientific terminology, we tend to say, “That’s Greek to me”. This begs the question: Why “Greek” in particular?
I don’t know the answer, but I can give this anecdote. My aunt, whose only language was German, would say, when she didn’t understand something that a person said (in German): “Dass war spanisch bei mir!” “That’s Spanish to me!” This, of course, begs the question: Why “Spanish” in particular? I regret I never got around to asking her, but I doubt that she would have known!
I vote for SL’s nicely explained reasoning on August 7. That particular form of mockery would have indeed “been pretty hilarious when it started,” funny enough to go viral, I think! And, good ol’ red blooded Americans (historically extrapolating) have never shied away from a chance to rib a blue blooded big wig. P.S. Fun to learn about “Mot de Cambronne,” thanks!
Very interesting indeed! So where did the term curse like a sailor come to play? Since we are in the topic of profanity!
Just another slam on the French. Too bad more people don’t learn what a great place it is to visit wherever you’re from.
my guess is that it is nothing more than an amusing jibe at the French, to using ‘pardon my french’ in place of ‘pardon my bad language’ is to indirectly imply ‘french’ = ‘bad language’
glofchm on August 8, 2011 at 7:12 am
C’est tout du chinois! = That’s all Chinese!
I like Shawn’s answer and Room Fulladirt’s answer. The others are getting a bit repetitive. But @Room Fulladirt, I don’t quite understand. I thought “quelque t’as” meant “something you have”. What part of it is supposed to correspond to the a-word?
My take on this issue may be narrow and downright uneducated to the English. I think this is some kind of a sacrilege to the French. What is the justification of associating a phrase denoucing profanity with the other nation? Though the phrase might be sounding all nice and non-offisive when using it but it’s bearing connotations significantly springs a concern in uneducated heads like mine. I’m concerned about the onslaugh of mockery launched on other nations, though i must confess, i wouldn’t mind using the phrase. Excuse my oxymoronical inferrences.
VD in its various forms were referred, by the English, as French diseases due to the perceived promiscuity of the French in matters of amore. As such it would be French terms that one would use in mixed company or when children were present to mask the fact that one was discussing matters of sex. French, being the language of love, would be the ideal language to describe such happenings. Therefore, it makes perfectly good sense to me to use French and for those who do not understand to ask their pardon for speaking in a language they could not understand. Surely many who did not know French were aware, although they didn’t know the eact words, could get a sense of what was being said. Often what is not said or is inferred communicates more than actual spoken words in one’s native language can.
To the un initiated Englishman it would seem profane (irreverant) behaviour, given their stiff-upperlip tradition, or it has followed / preceeded in the tradition of the “French Kiss”, which for the life of me would not grant it to the french, comig from the land of the ‘KAMASUTRA”!!
When I first heard this expression, I built up my own theory. I don’t know if it’s correct, but I like it!
French has been for many years a diplomatic language, and some of its words have come into English, like serviette, bouquet, and many others. Whoever said a word in French would sound aristocratic.
English humor is know for being very ironic, you express something by saying the opposite. So I though this was an ironic idiom: if you said a vulgarity it was certainly not very diplomatic, not very French. “Pardon my French” would be like a joke, and irony, meaning the contrary.
I don’t know if it’s correct, I’ve never done any research on it, but I like it!
certain profane words in english sound like non profane words in french. For example the word for the animal seal in french sounds like f–k. Perhaps after using a word of this ilk one excused themselves in jest by pretending they were not saying the profanity but merely using a french word…….this in fact was the explanation given to me by my late grandmother…….
People were already used to saying “Pardon my French” to excuse their use of French mixed in with their English. So, somebody started to use it tongue-in-cheek to include covering their use of profanity.
The expression derives from the earlier “pardon my affront,” which constituted an apology in cases where the speaker discerned that he or she had inadvertently offended the hearer(s). Such were the conventions of a polite society in which a misplaced word, the use of coarse language, or even an opinion expressed too passionately were apt to draw disapproval. The word “affront” when affected with the accents of the uneducated class (see Cockney) was misunderstood and thusly misquoted as “frunch” (french). The transmuted phrase “pardon my french” was gradually adopted throughout the English-speaking world, displacing the original “pardon my affront.” The spurious theory referring to the French word for seal (phoque) as the key to this linguistic puzzle is clever but perhaps a bit too obvious to constitute a satisfying explanation.
I hope I’m not repeating any answers, but I always assumed it was meant as a joke. Since “pardon my French” was already a common phrase, I think people started saying it after cursing as if to imply that the listener didn’t understand what the word meant. You can jokingly pretend like whatever expletive you just muttered was just a “foreign language,” and then say “pardon my French” to deflect criticism.
There is a profound difference between the social and sexual world views of the French and the English. Traditionally, the French would call the English world view ‘prudish’, while the English would call the French view ‘lewd’.
These two cultures used to have a very different view of sexual propriety. This was partly due to the evolution of political necessity; marrying for love became an ideal in England centuries earlier than in France, due to the distribution of property and evolving differences in how political status was attained in the two countries.
It’s also rather likely that the two cultures evolved differently partly to distinguish themselves from one another, as the antipathy between French and English goes back to at least the early Middle Ages (circa 700 AD).
I believe Archon and Josh hit the nail on the head. My French teacher told us that in France, the equivalent phrase translates to “pardon my English.”
I find it interesting, ethno-centric, and somewhat uneducated that, when people say “pardon my French,” they are usually pardoning some word that has ancient Saxon or Celtic roots.
I thought I knew the derivation of the phrase, “Pardon my French,” which, incidentally, I do not use and consider ill spoken, although not out of any personal Gaulic loyalty.
The result of linguistic curiosity, I had presumed that the idiom referred to attitudes regarding overt sexuality, generally more prevalent in France than other countries, a proclivity which exists even today. (cf: the personification of France itself is the always beautiful “Marie France.” The personification of England itself is “John Bull,” America, “Uncle Sam,” et cetera: the latter, icons not in the least evocative of the bourdoir.)
I am certain at an earlier time, any laissez faire attitudes concerning arrant sexual dynamics were considered improper: hence, “pardon my French” (I reasoned) meant “Pardon this lapse in better judgement with which I abandon the conversational standards of polite society to interject an off-limits word.”
I like the “mot de Cambronne” theory, but since the French say “filer a l’anglaise” and the English say “take the French leave” when someone leaves a restaurant without paying, it could just be the more prudish English assuming that vulgarities spoken aloud must be French in some way or another.
The first comment above by Lynn Mannix nails it spot-on. Left over from the many wars England and France engaged in. No proper British gentleman would use French words in conversation. If one slipped out or was unavoidable, the phrase “Pardon my French” was in order. At least, that is how I always understood it.
The good ol’ Anglo-French rivalry.
French letter = condom
French maid = sexy maid costume
Excuse my French = swearing
Yes, I believe we see a pattern emerging here.
I think they used French so that if you cuss at the English they would not be offended. Their excuse would be Pardon My French. It was a way to get away with it.
Maybe it was because when you speak in another language to someone who doesn’t understand, they take it as an insult at worst
You ALL have it wrong! The phrase comes from the fact that there is a word “phoque” in French!! So when they say the f-word, they say “pardon my French”. It doesn’t work with any other curse words.
A lot of swear words originated from the French language.
Maybe it’s because certain French words sound like English Profanities? Seal in French is “phoque” which is pronounced Fhawk. . . ???
Bon, les gars, faut se calmer un peu sur les hypothèses à la “mords-moi-le-noeud”…
I’m afraid the reason is simpler than all those considerations on a so-called French ‘Zeitgeist’ (as justified as some of them may be…)
As must have already been pointed out (i’m actually too lazy to read all the comments, but I felt that at least one always-on-strike, foul-mouthed, sarkozy-bashing, anti-patriotic French bastard ought to take this one), rivalry of all sorts between England and France extends further into the past than most Americans (say) can fully apprehend. It goes back to Hastings of course, and linguistically speaking, French has been a huge influence over the evolution of the English language.
A small addendum to something I’ve read: France’s heyday happens way before the 19th century, napoleon and all that crap; it takes place during the 17th century, esp. with the reign of Louis XIV. Culturally, diplomatically speaking, we’re at the top, after Spain and before England, which dominated the 18th and 19th century (erm, the British empire, industrial revolution, hello?) much more than France could ever do, what with political turmoil (roughly from 1800 to 1900: 3 republics, 2 empires, 3 “returns of the king”, 2 revolutions, 1 major war followed by 1 major revolt…).
To go back to profanity, yes indeed, French has always been ripe with it, which is something to be proud of, I think… I’ve studied both literatures, and I can’t think of any English writer having his character devise, list and rate the 50 (I think) best ways of wiping one’s arse, as François Rabelais did in his “Gargantua”… English, England has been this way, I think, as the most cursory glance at Shakespeare’s works will tell you, but puritanism from cromwell on changed this, and instead of Sade’s writings, England has Burke’s (which isn’t a bad thing per se, but seriously, what kind of name is that?).
Concerning STDs, the English have called it French, but the French in turn have called it Italian, or milanese IIRC, who have themselves called it sicilian or napolitan, I forget. Which means there’s always more depraved than yourself, unless it means we think diseases flourish in the southern heat…
Also, we French do call a “french cap” (condom, unless I’m very much mistaken about some aspects of life) “une capote anglaise” , but I’ve never heard anyone saying “excusez mon anglais” to repent from using profanities. We only say this to apologise for speaking such a poor English, like our president dearest might have done after saying “sorry for ze time” while showing the cloudy parisian skies… (we have the same word for time and weather).
Enough ranting already!
One last puzzled comment: why is it that foreign (esp. English-speaking though) people systematically misspell French words and phrases?
Granted, French is real difficult, esp. the spelling part might seem a bit haphazard (it actually is sometimes); granted, most of the French people I know misspell their own language, including some journalists and writers, but I find it mind-boggling that even francophiles, journalists and writers included, cannot turn a decently turned French sentence… I’m exaggerating a bit, but I’ve read spelling errors in the otherwise very learned comments above, as well as in the original article.
@Archon: Kudos for the most wide ranging concoction; as the saying goes “bu77sh1t baffles brains”.
@Robert Moore: That’s “Pardon my Canadian, Eh!”… eh?
@j & @Chris Wesling: For most creatively plausible.
I’ll go with, it began as a semi-legitimate apology of the aristrocratic hoi-polloi for using French when it was generally considered unpopular and an unpatriotic faux pas; but then spread to the masses, who wouldn’t have known any French, but who could mimic and satarize the elite by associating the phrase with profanity. (Gee, this is fun; are we gonna have another tab here soon; ‘Dictionary’,'Thesaurus’,'Balderdash’…?)
@DH & @Edward B. Connolly: As for the it’s all Greek to me… I’d say that one’s likely due to the fact that most of us might at least give it a shot if we came across:
“Je suis fatigué”, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, ¿Dónde está el partido?, or perhaps even “Parentis ut nostrum vulgaris lingua quod scriptor”;
respectively French:”I’m tired”, German:”I am a Berliner” (JFK, 63-6-26), Spanish:”Where’s the party?”, and Latin:”Parent to our common language and script”;
but would you even hazard a guess at:
“αυτό είναι όλος Ελληνικός εννοώ” (“It’s all Greek to me”)?
Just read a couple others…
“bitch” is a French word? What the phoque?
BTW, this “seal theory” is utterly nonsensical (Hey, let’s have a “who’s the wordiest” contest!), and, imo, completely unsupported.
It’s not that we talk about love or sex more casually than any other country, it’s that we’ve done it in a more public way, esp. artists, Sade, Rabelais, Courbet’s “l’origine du monde”, Manet’s “déjeuner sur l’herbe” come to mind… This game of tossing the obscenity ball to one another should have gone boring by now… Most of my older acquaintances have been shocked by the way the sex & the city protagonists discussed sex so freely and thought all Americans talked this way, and some of my friends thought British girls dressed very provocatively…
About the “mot de Cambronne”, IIRC, it was not muttered but shouted by napoleon’s general in response to the enemy’s intimation that he should surrender… So, in this instance: “merde”= you can suck it! At least that’s what history/legend says…
Bon, les aminches, c’est pas qu’je m’emmerde, mais j’vais ptêt’ devoir calter au plumard, vu qu’la daronne va m’tomber su’l'rable demain si j’ai les mirettes commak pendant la réunion, ça m’pèse d’avance sur les valseuses, j’vous en dit rien…
Having spent some time in France speaking French I ran across a word one day. I was visiting with a friend when a light joyful ditty rang out from the TV that the kids where watching. The program was about a little seal lion and his play mates. The ditty used the French word for seal several time and each time it did I cringed because the French word for “seal” was spelled “foc*” on the screen and was pronounced very much like an English slang word meaning to… well lets say it rhymes with firetruck.
So, I assumed that “Pardon My French” was a polite way of telling someone to go hunt seal lions.
You can see how the French term “Faux Phoque Frock” could offend an English woman when a Frenchman was merely speaking of her “Imitation Seal Stole”
*Note: that the spelling I used “foc”is different from the “phoque” spelling above. The French cartoon took a few liberties to get syndicated.
Of course, after my French buddy found out that he knew an offensive English word he used it a lot to the point of having his innocent kids sing the ditty for me a few more times for grins.
In Russia during the 1800’s French language was widely spoken by many aristocrats. Wealthy ladies would often speak profanities in French in order to avoid being understood by passer-by’s. Perhaps a similar trend appeared in other countries?
I subscribe to what Tania wrote.
I never wondered about the origin of the expression, and until I read the comments here, never heard what the origin might be. I just picked up what I thought was its meaning from the context, and it always seemed to me the expression was used ironically in just the sense Tania theorized.
¡Muchas gracias, Tania!
Well, if you’ll pardon my French.. #$^@ed if I know…..
Room Fulladirt didn’t have it quite right. The play “Oh! Calcutta” takes its name from the French phrase “Oh! Quel cul t’as,” and the “cul” is the equivalent of the English a**.
Είναι όλα τα αγγλικά για μένα.
@Archon: Kudos for the most wide ranging concoction; as the saying goes “B.S. baffles brains”.
@Robert Moore: That’s “Pardon my Canadian, Eh!”… eh
@j & @Chris Wesling: For most creatively plausible.
I’ll go with, it began as a semi-legitimate apology of the aristrocratic hoi-polloi for using French when it was generally considered unpopular and an unpatriotic faux pas; but then spread to the masses, who wouldn’t have known any French, but who could mimic and satarize the elite by associating the phrase with profanity.
(Gee, this is fun; are we gonna have another tab here soon; ‘Dictionary’,'Thesaurus’,'Balderdash’…?)
@DH & @Edward B. Connolly: As for the it’s all Greek to me… I’d say that one’s likely due to the fact that most of us would at least hazard a guess at: “Je suis fatigué”, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, ¿Dónde está el partido?, or possibly even “Parentis nostri lingua quod scriptor”
respectively French:”I’m tired”, German:”I am a Berliner”, Spanish:”Where’s the party?”, and Latin:”Parent of our language and script”;
but would you even take a shot at:
“αυτό είναι όλος Ελληνικός εννοώ” (“It’s all Greek to me”).
@Cimone on August 8, 2011 at 11:03 am
“Quel que t’as” vs “Quel cul t’as”
The word ‘cul’ (pronounced ku) sounds similar, though not the same as ‘que’ (pronounced keu). ‘Cul’ is a vulgar word for one’s rear-end, ‘que’ means ‘that.’
So yes, “quel cul t’as” means “what a nice rear-end you have,” whereas “quel que t’as” means, litterally “that which you have,” and can be said when someone likes something you have, a bit out of surprise, kind of like “Wow! That’s nice.” I hope that gets rid of confusion
Why did the author give up so soon? Why do I feel like he or she could have done a little more digging and come up with an answer a little more half-interested than, ‘oh well, it’s an enigma.’
I’m too lazy to look it up too.
WILD THEORIES ASIDE, THIS MAN IS RIGHT – THANKS SHAWN:
*************The real reason is very simple.**************
The “F” word in English is pronounced the same way as the word for the animal the “seal” is in french….in french the word for a “seal” is “phouque”…which is pronounced “F*%K……I’m surprised at all the weird theories….
You are Welcome…
I SAID PRETTY MUCH THE SAME THING IN MY RESPONSE, WHICH I SEE HAS BEEN REMOVED (SHOULD HAVE CENSORED THE “F” WORD)!
Lots of rude words in English are normal in French
For e.g. en retard means late, and douche means shower…
“Mommy, what does @!*# mean?”
“Uh, it’s… French, darling.”
The English are famous for their over-politeness. They use euphemisms far more than most cultures for profanity. Bullocks, hogwash, bastard, arse. That’s about as bad as it gets in everyday british conversation In contrast, in French you have words like merd, sacre blu, zut, etc. which are very common expressions. So one can imagine that whenever British people really wanted to swear, they may have used french. Or maybe it’s just that when french people visit england they swear more often, so it got the negative association that way.
Er. I am only nine.. Try not to post EVER again…
My French Teacher, Ms. Ma’am/Madam . Rolands said Oh thats what you say if you have been swearing. She is around the age of 50 or so, OR the annoying children have stressed her out so much her hair went smack BANG Grey!
I presume it might be of a more sinister nature, since I often have heard it used after someone burped or making other kind of noise.
@ Cimone: Room Fulladirt completely misspelled it. It should have been: ‘Quel cul t’as!’ Forcibly an exclamation. To pronounce it verbally as he wrote it what be interpreted by any French person as ‘Quelle queue t’as!’ Meaning, ‘What a (big) d1ck you have!’ Lol!
Back on topic, I remain a little perplexed as to why the idiom ‘pardon my French’ which evolved into ‘excuse my profanity’ is considered an enigma. There are certainly many examples in this thread as to how this may have come about. Must one pinpoint a documented proven example of when this new interpretation first occurred, so that a body of scholars can unanimously agree on a definitive explanation? Since the transmuted idiom in question undoubtedly derived from verbal usage, unlike the many distinct expressions originating from Shakespeare’s works, will the enigma always remain as such?
*would* be interpreted
that does make a certain level of sense. although i have to admit, i thought it would’ve been because the French language had more curse words than English would by comparison. Looking at it now, they have roughly the same amount, so that was hardly a reason, or explanation. the one presented within this webpage does have standings; for the French had done allot of migrating, so them coming across someone who didn’t know the language, then used it; apologizing (in form of a pardon) for its use does make better sense than for apologizing for use of a vulgar term. i may not be a history buff, but I’m pretty sure curse words were of the norm back in the day as well as it is now. how it came to be used for curse words; that’s a different question. one of which would make a great conversation topic for debaters. lol
We are questioning the roots of the ~current~common~ usage here aren’t we?… Simple! It is a long tradition within the general population, to parody snobbery. To take puffed up upper-crust expressions, and “recycle” them in new (preferrably base) contexts for a laugh! This phrase is just another example of that. phrases-dot-org-dot-uk quotes a 19thC magazine article that demonstrates the original usage. Here the expression is used to emphasize that the speaker has just used a french word… showing off his/her education and culture. Unsubtle and boastful? Heaven forbid, no! …apparently almost accidental usage with a small apology. When this phrase (device) became often used, it percolated through to the general polulation – who debunked/lampooned it by using it in apologising for swearing. Brilliant!
Maybe they cursed in french so the other wouldn’t understand.
I think it far more likely that the phrase “pardon my French” is an overtly polite and English (not British) way of ‘implying’ that the profanity used was so uncouth that the ‘person of good repute’ hearing it couldn’t possibly have understood the meaning of the words, therefore allowing the alleged disguising of them as “French”. Thus allowing a light-hearted request for a pardon that not only provides a hidden compliment to the person who heard the profanity, but which also delivers a wee dig at the French by portraying them as uncouth – a gibe which of course remains overused today. Anybody who might object to the profanity, would also therefore have to admit that they too were of low enough standard to know such words. In itself partially permitting the use of the words. Non?
–c’est la vie mes ami….
Wow dictionary.com–thanks for an article about nothing. I now know nothing more on the topic than I do before I wasted 15 second of my life reading this article, and another 15 seconds admonishing you. How about an article on”how to get 30-wasted seconds of your life back?”
I always suspected it might be related to one of the alternate definitions of the word “frank,” meaning “blunt, explicit, abrupt, gruff, impolite,” etc. The word “frank” is, in French, “franche” which also sounds like the word “French”.
I liked Chris’s, LT’s, and Dr. Know’s explanations the best.
Pardon any repition in my guess below.
My guess is that it is just a reflection of stupidity, ignorance, and lack of knowledge and education. Some person who was uneducated happened to be in the presence of someone who was educated and had been using a French word to another person. Subsequently, upon realizing the person to whom he or she had been talking did not understand, the speaker, to be polite, said, ‘pardon my french.’ Some uneducated person observed and heard this, and misunderstanding, copied and used the same phrase later after using profanity. He or she misunderstood and thought the speaker had been using profanity, and was just copying what the original speaker said. The masses clung onto this, and copied each other…and maybe not even all of them from this initial misunderstanding. It may have originally happened mulitiple times where many people misunderstood and copied this phrase. Eventually, it caught on like fire, spread, and carried over from generation to generation into the time we exist today.
My guess would be that ‘phouque’, as it is originally spelled above, would be pronounced ‘fooooook’ (not with drawing out the ooooo sound like that, but it is only written like that to emphasize the guessed pronunciation), to rhyme with ’shook’ or ‘duke’, except with an ‘f’ sound at the beginning, of course, instead of rhyming with ‘duck’ and beginning with an ‘f’. The latter spelling, ‘phoque’, I would think would be promounced more to like ‘fock’, like to rhyme with ‘dock’ except with an ‘f’ as opposed to rhyming with ‘duck’. That would be my guess from the french pronounciation courses I have taken in previous times. Of course, if someone had an accent, it could possibly make it sound more like, ‘f*!k’, but I would think with the french accent and the english (american) accent, it would be pronounced in that manner as described above.
The *ell Boy 2 movie was hilarious when it had a similar part where the guy with the russian (I guess?) accent said, “focus” and *ell Boy said something to the effect of, ‘yeah, I don’t think that’s a good word for you to be saying with that accent of yours’. I thought that was so funny, I was rolling in the floor. I guess I have an odd sense of humor. I guess that was sort of on topic. A bit. Anyway. That’s my guess.
All very interesting and speculative, but I think the real answer is that what the speaker is trying to say is “Pardon my frankness,” (profanity being VERY frank) and as idioms will, this developed from the confusion between frankness (meaning directness) and Frenchness – bearing in mind that the very word France meant country of the Franks.
Maybe it’s supposed to be funny. Swearing is coarse and vulgar, French is a lovely language. Passing off vulgarity as French is funny, in an ironic sort of way.
I have looked in vain through the many explanations for a reference to the delicious fact that in the days before penicillin the dreade “syff” was called, by the English, “the French disease” and by the French, “the English disease”
Perfectly analogous to the erstwhile, possibly still extant, American convention of referring to the Vietnamese as “gooks” as in the statement of a “lootenant” USArmy reported by Walter Cronkite circa 1968: “Ah’ma gonna go git me some gooks!”
Consider the reaction of Americans when we Canadians refer to them as “Yanks” (whether modified or not by the “F” word), and by us Canadians when Americans refer to us as “Canucks”.
I think that sez it all. Xenophobia rules!
I cursed at the end of the article…
This (from the blog) makes no sense: “… the English often used French words in conversation – a foreign language to most people living in England….”
How “often” could French words be used, if most people did not know the language? Or did the writer mean something other than, essentially, “unknown” when using “foreign” here? I mean, of COURSE French was foreign — meaning NOT from England. GEE.
I am saddened to see people grandly proclaiming they know the “real reason” for this — and offering, of course, no support, no citation for their proclamation.
I have no idea how this phrase developed (though I quite like it). I’d always assumed it was a way of mocking yourself for inappropriate use of profanity.
Since French is (and moreso was) considered a langauge of culture, education, and sophistication; calling your use of profanity “French” was a way of showing how crude you were being.
Like saying “I’m so low-class that cursing seems sophisticated to me.”…But, you know, in a shorter, pithier way.
Shawn, you’re an idiot.
Marc mentioned another aspect of the word “Frank” that I considered but failed to include in my submission. Thanks Marc! It’s nice to know that someone else is thinking along the same lines. Although all posts here are intriguing!
I think “Pardon my French” is a tongue in cheek expression alluding to the word’s origins. Or it’s simply just replacing the word “excuse” with the french pardon then adding my french. Then pardon maybe was adopted afterwards to mean excuse.
Did anyone, anyone out there think it originated precisely because English speakers absolutely slaughter the exquisite pronunciation of the French language when they speak it???? Yeah, you should ask to be pardoned for your French! From there, it went to when English speakers spoke profanity.
All this aside, I think TANIA and DEE ALEXIS offered the best explanations.
Well, I think when you say that French is the “language of love” you sort of have the idea why. In your mind visualize that you are an Englishman hating the French. Now, come up with some generalizations about them such as being known for being rude, dirty, and crude people. Remember, you hate the French and with the language being the so called “language of love” it’s not hard to think why you say that when you utter something profane.
probably cuz the french swear a lot.
Perhaps because the French were perceived by the English to be snotty and rude, and therefore when saying a profane word, you’d say “Oops, pardon my French” for others to pardon your rudeness.
I think more than likely it was a lot like how it is now. Most people who don’t know other languages at least know a few profane words in another language. For example someone may not speak Spanish but they probably know at least 1 profane word. So I think it was just a way for people to use profane language and not have it deemed as inappropriate as it would’ve been said in the language that everyone around them would understand.
As a French, this idiom has been explained to us during English class : we say “Pardon my French” because French people swear a lot. Our vocabulary in that field is…well… extensive !
@ Sunil et al
It works with all curse words, and burping, and fXXrting, not just phoque.
It’s not complete, that would take a book, but, not a word of it is BS, even though it did baffle you. There was no need to post a second time. I only had to read it once to know that you were wrong twice.
I’ve always heard “Pardon my French” not after any vulgar term, but usually only after the “F” word. I’ve always thought people said this because they said as a joke that they didn’t said the “F” word, they said “phoque” the french word for seal.
“I love the French language. I have sampled every language, French is my favourite – fantastic language, especially to curse with. Nom de Dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperies de connards d’enculé de ta mère. It’s like wiping your arse with silk, I love it.” ~The Merovingian
Pardon my Virtual Reality
In some cases people would use “bad” language in french so that the younger children couldn’t say it…
Carlitos, are you back under a new nom de guerre? When I first started posting on these threads, I worried that I might not be able to keep up to the cut and thrust of a spirited linguistic discussion, and you went for a “Yo’ mamma” joke? Really, that’s the best you had? So, you were at my mum’s place? Did you put her urn back on the bookshelf when you left? My mother has been dead almost ten years, and she’s still got better vocabulary, better comprehension and better manners than you. You’re lucky you didn’t meet her in person! She would have met you at the door with a broom in her hand and swatted your insolent butt, or grabbed you by the ear and washed your mouth out.
I was thinking that maybe because “pardon my French” was perhaps used by the upper classes, that maybe the lower classes were mocking the upper crust by using the phrase when communicating with each other to apologize for cursing instead of being misunderstood. I just have this funny situation in my head with this poor guy sneaking into a rich party. A rich guy says to the poor guy “pardon my French, but sort d’ici!” The poor guy retorts “pardon MY French, but fuck you!” Oh, my imagination…
Well, in French, the word for “Seal” (The animal) is a profane word in the English Language. That was the reason that was explained to me… I hope this provides some insight…
in simple temers pardon my french or excuse my french just to says it all like said simplicity…! excuse me if I am not pronoucing right! I say it all the time…most of my french understand that it takes to be french man or woman to pronounce french..and those rrrrrrrrrrrrrr’s gosh! how can you explain the saying of the words and everything is he and she… there is no upper or lower class to speak or to even excuse yourself of such bad pronouciation.
@StarDust on August 9, 2011 at 4:25 am
Wow, I didn’t realize that by saying “quel que t’as” it sounds identical to “quelle queue t’as” – maybe it’s also because of my Southern French accent where ‘quel’ and ‘quelle’ are pronounced slightly differently though. It’s funny that when you read it, you often don’t make the same association as when you say it out loud.
Mind tricks, or better yet, pronunciation tricks are so common in French – I’ve seen entire sentences with two completely different meanings that are only shown when writing but sound the exact same. Who knows, maybe it’s these pronunciation tricks that have led people to say “pardon my French”?
I think a good guess would be that in the old times, you didn’t have an academy of languages to learn foreign languages. As people probably had to learn in the streets, or picked a lot of it in the streets, people also picked the street language along with profanities, but ignoring or not having any other word to use to express what you needed to express at that moment, like it happened to me a few times. I learned words and expressions from my American friends and then went out and repeated it in front of other people, I only knew I said something very wrong by looking the change in the faces of the people I was talking to. I didn’t say pardon my French, but asked, “Did I say something wrong”?
This makes the most sense to me, but it has to be because the French seem so notorious for being profane and vulgar in general. This is the blaring feeling I get every time I get a taste of French culture, coming from the states at least.
See Mayelle’s response above. That’s what I was referring to. lol
In Quebec, some of us french speakers will say “Pardon my English” after a burp or a swear. I think it just dates back to the rivalry between the French and English from way back when.
In French we say “Pardon my English” instead. I suppose in either case the meaning is “Pardon my vulgarity”, thus insinuating that French/English is vulgar.
In Quebec, when you french speakers speak, you don’t speak French, you speak Poutine, or even worse, Franglais. It’s so bad that, when you import real French movies from Paris, they have to be subtitled in Quebecese. Prostitutes and protestants, and you still pretend to be pur laine and try to hold the rest of Canada hostage. Parlez Nycole Tourmel?
Quayli – I’ve heard that explanation before but it just doesnt make sense. Assuming the expression is AT LEAST a hundred years old, how many Englishman would have been talking about Seals? And of they did; why talk about them in French? Seems pretty unlikely that this would happen regularly enough to warrant a phrase in years to come…
I think it’s either; along the lines of Martin’s suggestion – the long rivalry between England & France which resulted in the use of French being considered a ‘swear’.
Or as the two countries became more familiar; the upper classes would have been tasked with learning the opposing language. It could be possible that it would be embarrassing to have a poor grasp of the foreign language which required ‘excusing’.
My guess is the former….
maybe because a lot of French people swear?
It’s all Greek to me.
See also French Kiss and French Letter
why only french im stil not 100% sur?????????????????
For what it’s worth……didn’t the F word come from medieval times when the peasants had to have permission from the king of England to have relations? Fornication Under Consent of the King is what a blue badge guide in a London Heritage class told us. Maybe it should be pardon my English in France………
In my experience, it is rude to speak in a foreign language when not everyone can understand it. This is merely supposition, but it would seem logical that the expression would easily transfer to all rude expressions, including profanity, since the concept for apologizing for rude speech is the same.
I thought there was supposed to be a new hot word every day…if not this should be the case….let’s get some more written with alacrity
Archon is closest to discovering the truth. The only thing I would add is a brief mention of French versus English literature at the time of greatest influence between the two cultures to illuminate the thinking behind the expression.
Generally, the English sensibility created a form of self censorship under which authors essentially didn’t even feel comfortable with mildly controversial topics. Thomas Hardy, for instance, took a great deal of criticism for writing Jude The Obscure, as it attempted to deal with breaking social conventions by falling in love with a cousin. This hardly alerts obscene alarms nowadays. Hardy even removed the rape and infant death scenes from Tess when it was serialized. Whereas French novelists, such as Balzac and Dumas, weren’t as afraid of airing out topics that were considered too racy for English sensibilities. Take “Pere Goriot”: the first gay character in a novel was introduced.
I suspect it’s because French use religious words to swear and English use scatological words. As a result, French may use words such as “merde” casually in a context the more proper Englishmen would have found offensive. This perhaps gave the false impression that the French swore more… but if they really wanted to swear they would say something offensive to Frenchmen such as “tabernacle” or “sacrament” which would hardly cause the most proper English lady to blush. BTW, Martin’s observation above is correct, but it’s more likely “tit for Tat” for the English phrase… and the rivalry continues, on a more friendly basis, even today both in Quebec and in Europe
It’s not just the French-speakers in Canada who say “Pardon my English” when using a crude or gritty expression. I think there is an implicit sense that grittiness is a virtue of real down-to-earth speakers of English as opposed to those who resort to polite euphemism or educated idioms. The Germans recognize this when they preface or append “auf Deutsch gesagt” to a crude German idiom.
I like the answers that explain that speaking in a language in a place where the majority would not understand is considered “gauche” (pardon my French). In hosting foreign students (7), they have demonstrated this belief and abstained from speaking their native language while visiting here. They spoke their native language only when in a large crowd where the same-speaking people were gathered. I think all other countries are conscious of that “coup de grace”: except for Americans, who don’t bother to learn a second language, mainly because we don’t have to! Most other countries are required to study English in school.
I think it’s more along the thought of the lack of love between to nations. An insult to the French language. If the speaker uses a expletive to best describe communication skills, it makes the speaker seem immature, petulant, angry. Given the history of England and France, the English may have thought that whenever the french language was spoken, it sounded contemptuous, something that shouldn’t be spoken in mixed company or used as proper English language……
I’ve always assumed it was because the English “F” word (the queen-mother of dirty words) is pronounced roughly the same as the French word “Foch”, which means “seal” (i.e. the animal). So the speaker who says “Pardon my French,” is making a thinly-veiled claim that he didn’t swear, he was speaking French.
This could be related to the same reason Americans changed “french fries” to “freedom fries” … anticipated or actual French antagonism. I still remember Googling “french victories” and Google returning, “did you mean ‘french defeats’?”
I’m not buying it.
The French overthrew England in 1066 in the Battle of Hastings.
“Eventually, the Normans merged with the natives, combining languages and traditions. In the course of the Hundred Years war, the Norman aristocracy often identified themselves as English. The Anglo-Norman language became distinct from the French language, something that was the subject of some humour by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Anglo-Norman language was eventually absorbed into the English language of their subjects (see Old English language) and influenced it, helping (along with the Norse language of the earlier Anglo-Norse settlers and the Latin used by the church) the development of Middle English which would gain much vocabulary of French origin.” –Wikipedia, Normans
Also, in 1805, one of Villeneuve’s men climbed the mast of a ship and fired a fatal shot at England’s Lord Nelson. Though Nelson won this infamous battle of Trafalgar, freeing England from the fear of Napoleon, French was truly a dirty word at the time.
I think this phrase came up because there are a few forms of the French language. I live in Winnipeg Manitoba, and the St.Boniface people speak a certain way, my family speaks another way, the people in Quebec speak another way and people from France speak it another way. Just a thought.
perhaps an english man had gone to french then he couldn’t speek french and he had said that
how was this idea?
i think that it is “pardon my french” becuase french as a people are very fancy and when we say “pardon my french” i think we are saying pardon my fancy words…no?
SL on August 7, 2011 at 4:46 pm…. Bingo!! I can just imagine the sailers and working stiffs in Manchester pubs, swinging pints and ending every raunchy gust with a faux effete “pardon my French”.
Today we just say: “par-doan-ay mwaaaaa”.
Just like an occasional French word was thrown into common English speaking, so sparse did vulgar words used to be in regular speaking–not easily understood in word meaning itself (but certainly by tone).
perhaps french has more slang and profanity words in it.
French is a Catholic country, where blasphemy (using the Lord’s name in vain, etc.) has long been considered more offensive than vulgarity. In Protestant countries such as England, it’s the other way around: words for body parts and functions are more offensive. Plus, the French culture has long been more casual about sexuality and physicality than has England, home of the Puritans (remember, the U.S. was largely founded by Puritans).
The French are considered to be some of the most rude, snobbish people in the world, especially toward Americans. It seems so obvious to me that profanity (considered rude and classless by many) is very well aligned with the French as a people group!
I like Cheryl’s idea from 8/8 about the irony of using the phrase after cutting loose some choice Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.
Here’s a thought, from my own personal experience some of the first words I’ve learned from foreign languages were curse words. This is true for many of my friends and acquaintances. Perhaps what little French the English spoke in the 19th century was in fact the few words they knew, and perhaps those words were curse words.
It’s also important to point out that cursing in French, just like saying anything in French, is quite fun and has a very nice ring to it. So it seems even more likely that French may have been used primarily for swearing in England, and hence the profanity connotation for the idiom.
If not that way, it may be that what little French was spoken could easily be so bad that some words were altered while speaking and the result was quite indecent. It’s enough that one or two mistake were very common, and the reactions severe enough, that it would be wise for anyone attempting their French on the unsuspecting without being sure of what one meant, to beg the other party to pardon their French.
Then again I may be wrong and the profanity-meaning may derive from something completely unrelated. Who knows at this point?
If ‘pardon my French’ was a common saying, it may have been amusing to certain types of wits to co-opt the saying to “apologize” for their profanity. Certainly seems to me to be the simplest explanation.
This idiom is quite sophisticated and indeed, I plan on using it.
Consent (of the)
When that word is muttered or yelled, often times the speaker will say: “Opps, pardon my French.” This is because back in the day when kings ruled with an iron fist, and listened not to the sayings of so called Parliaments… The kings would grant the right of envoys or other important peoples the right to fornicate with others, this was called *See above* These kings were French kings maybe?
An English History professor told me the same story about serfs needing their lord’s pemission to marry and procreate. Then he turned it 180 degrees and stated that anyone who did not get permission could be punished For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Lies, damned lies and statistics; look above at all the guesses from people absolutely sure that their story is correct. No wonder we don’t know where parts of the language came from.
I completely agree with Chris Wesling’s answer.
The original question, Why isn’t it “Pardon my German?”, has been lost sight of. Many Germans think that real German speakers, the down to earth Volk, regard earthy language — calling a spade a spade instead of resorting to polite euphemisms or educated idioms — as a virtue and therefore see no need to apologize for it. Hence they preface or append “auf Deutsch gesagt” rather than an apology to a crude German idiom. However, the earthy language in question is typically anal….
The original question, Why isn’t it “Pardon my German?”, has been lost sight of. For many Germans, down-to-earth earthy language — calling a spade a spade instead of resorting to polite euphemisms or educated idioms — is a virtue and therefore they see no need to apologize for it. Hence they preface or append “auf Deutsch gesagt” rather than an apology to crude German idioms. However, the earthy language in question is typically anal….
This article is such a tease. I expected to actually learn something.
I always thought “go to hell” was “allez en fer.” Sure sounds classier in French than English.
As far as I understand it, it was also common at one time to, when translating a work of poetry from a language such as Greek or Latin for school texts, the obscene parts were written in French, the idea being that a student old enough to understand the French would be old enough to be mature about the touchy subject. I own very many old texts in which this is the case– all juicy parts of the poetry are in French, while the rest is regular English.
How about this one: The first words some people learn when studying a new language are usually curse words. What if the uneducated/poorer class picked up on these words first/only, and used them the way the higher class did (inserted them into conversation) to feel important.
Pardon My French sprang about when the American Soldiers came back from storming Normandy, France (WW I) and they were all cursing and swearing. The polite women of that time never cursed, of course, and could not believe that our polite young American Soldiers would ever behave in such a way and were corrupted by the French. Therefore, whenever a young man was caught swearing by an older respected woman he would say “Pardon my French”… We have to think back to how our society was back then…
Just guessing, but don’t some people think, not saying I agree, that french men are a tad on the rude side or blunt, maybe around the same time, some french spoke abruptly when they did not understand each other. While feeling frustrated the french man might’ve said “pardon my french”. Possibly, some English assumed profanity may have been said in french.
its so easy to understand
i think this phrase is probably one of the most comical, just because of the debates it sparks, such as trying to say that pardon my French comes from the French being a rude people, in addition to implying that the French and English are not always on the best of terms, and that the English do not want to use a language as “disgusting” as French, and so it must be pardoned. The humour in all of this banter, is that the French are not a rude people, they just have a different culture than our own, and the reason that they seem to be “rude” to Americans, is because we go to their country and expect their way of life to be exactly like our own, just with a different language. The fact of the matter is, the French take things at a much less hurried pace, and stop to appreciate the simpleness of doing nothing, whereas Americans who often travel to the country end up trying to hurry them along. Secondly, the humour lies in the fact that 70-80% of all English, is French, granted, French started as a Latin based language with local tribal mixed in, but the fact of the matter is, that English, is nothing but French said in a different accent, so if we could just look at the story presented, and take it for what it is, instead of trying to use it to point out some great flaw with the Frenchmen, then maybe we could all learn something.
I have always taken this expression to be ironic… as we use so many French words euphemistically; e.g., derierre for backside. When using profanity, we are anything but genteel (French.)
Just an insight, the phrase become associated with profanity because there were some French words which sounded taboo for English people then.
Canadian French are known for their swearing thus apologizing for their profanity.
I’ll give it a try. In Italian, we also say “Scusa il francesismo” (which is almost the exact translation of “Pardon my French”); I think that this idiom stems from the fact that French was the language spoken by nobles—and, today, occasional French words are used by the people who want to sound high-class—so “Scusa il francesismo” means “Pardon my profanity” by antiphrasis. But I acknowledge that this explanation works only for the Italian counterpart of the English idiom, as English relationships with France has been completely different from the Italian ones.
Slang Dictionary (dictionary.reference.com)
Pardon my French definition
and Excuse my French.
Excuse my use of swear words or taboo words.; Excuse my choice of vocabulary. (Does not refer to real French.) : What she needs is a kick in the butt, if you’ll excuse my French.
We all try to be, appear superior, cleverer and smarter than others. When we fail in our endevour, we demean others (individuals, groups, cultures,
nations…) while clutching at the last straw trying to save our skin and still believing or feeling we’re one up on the other guy, a sly smirk playing in the corners of our mouths!
“Why did the phrase become associated with profanity? That’s an enigma.”
Oh come , come. I mean after all we are speaking about the French and profanity together in one short sentence in the Queens English tongue. So where is the enigma? Why the French themselves are living examples of it. For modern times it might better be phrased “Pardon, I may be French wallowing in profanity”. Indeed, that is a better understood re-phrasing for the less sophisticated.
This is a very long thread with a lot of imaginative suppositions. But we may be overthinking it a tad. Given the information from the original post I believe this idiom started the same way many others do: as a sarcastic twist on the use of an accepted expression. In a similar vein, I’ve heard people use the phrase, “thanks for sharing” after someone belched.
If an English speaker today were to insert a French word into the conversation because he/she could not think of an English equivalent, that person might say, “for lack of a better word.” Many people use that exact same phrase when they are about to insert a word that might be considered inappropriate in certain circles.
So it isn’t much of a leap to think that perhaps when an off-color word was used in polite conversation in England, the way to lighten things up would have been with a humorous apology. Borrowing the accepted “pardon my French” would have been perfect for such situations.
Yeah…don’t know about the “Pardon my French” thing, but for those queries about the phrase “It’s all Greek to me”–notwithstanding it was in general use prior to Shakespeare’s time, it seems pretty clear that we have the phrase today, at least, because of this dialog between Cassius and Casca in Act I, Scene 2 of Julius Caesar:
CASSIUS: Did Cicero say any thing?
CASCA: Ay, he spoke Greek.
CASSIUS: To what effect?
CASCA: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.
Both my mother and father had German as their first language. I was born in Massachusetts in 1932. My parents wanting me to be American only spoke English in front of me with two exceptions. When Dad would swear or when they wanted to discuss sex, they switched to German because I would not understand. Of course I learned those forbidden words, and if I want to swear I may switch to German which has a nice sound for profanity. On the rare occasions when I am really upset, I may swear in Geman, and if my children are present I may say, “Pardon my German.” Just a thought.
To be inconsiderate or rude was to give offense, much as profanity offends…
The text and most of the comments confuse profanity with vulgarity-or common speech that refined and gentle people would never use, words their good upbringing and culture prevent them from uttering. This is a foreign concept in our “let it all hang-out” world. After a course word or expression slipped out and an embarrassed silence followed, the speaker would ask forgiveness and all parties could pretend that the listener(s) were unfamiliar with the word or expression and the conversation could resume. Profanity on the other hand is the taking of the Lord’s name in vain and can never be disguised.
All I can think of is the french word for seal, “foque”, which is pronounced exactly like the F-word.
donkey kong peanut butter
As Henry Higgins puts it:
“The French don’t care what they do, actually,
so long as they pronounce it correctly.”
…reflects British assumptions about both
French morals and their love of language.
Lyn has a point..but i guess it’s clearer if we re-phrase it like this:
“In days gone by, the English and the French were not on very good terms. Perhaps the English considered ANY profane in English to be French “
I always assumed it was intentional irony on the part of the speaker, nothing more. As in, they weren’t saying something coarse and vulgar at all, ils parlaient le français! (wink wink)
Beenish: Not at all. As Lynn’s first statement is true, her following logic is quite probable.
Its for the kids — I always remember my mom saying “ooops — pardon my french” as though she knew it wasn’t a word we were familiar with — so she deemed it french (we knew she took in high school) to cover for her faux pas.
Could it be that the French regularly curse when speaking (and writing) their language. In French cursing is not considered to be such an affront as it is in English. That’s just my suposition.
No real mystery is there?I think it’s simply a humorous phrase, used to pretend one is speaking French when using a profanity. Nobody is fooled by it.
A famous English fop probably said it once to preface a profanity — and it caught on. It sounds like something Oscar Wilde would have said in jest.
I think that since the English and the French we not on such good conditions, the English would just call French profanity.
If you read many English literary or scientific texts from the 19th century, parts that a contemporary would consider “indecent” or “naughty” are often translated into latin, the assumption being that only someone highly educated (i.e. who would know latin) would be able to handle such risqué material with the necessary objectivity. The Latinization of naughty parts served to protect the morals of any hoi polloi who might accidentally stumble upon the text. I wonder if in daily speech, bilingual English upper crusters would switch to French for a similar reason; perhaps the apology for French initially followed all linguistic diversions into French (foul or otherwise), and eventually the phrase became limited to vulgar language. Apologizing for French after saying a curse word in English would be a humorous and witty extension of this practice; and as most English speaking people became monolingual, the phrase stuck, even though we no longer curse in French – unfortunately so, since, as the Merovingian says in the second Matrix, cursing in French is like “essuyer le cul avec de la soie.” ^_^
Perhaps the speaker knows that her French is terrible and is apologizing for such transgression. The French would accept the apology.
@ Doug R
It would be a coarse word, of course.
I have to agree with Carolyn . . . I use the phrase “Pardon my French” only when I’ve droped the F-bomb.
The English were for centuries constantly at war with the French (either physically or in their own minds).
Furthermore, being an insular island nation the vast majority of the population never learned to speak French, or any other foreign language.
These two facts meant that whenever an Englishman heard someone speaking French in their presence they were only being slightly paranoid in assuming that they were being cursed at by the (presumably French) speaker.
Hence the French language became synonymous with cursing
It’s a similar idea of the phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” French was once considered a difficult language to understand, so when someone used a spontaneous curseword, if children were in earshot, they could just pretend they were speaking French and children would be put off to imitate. To make a long story short: Any spoken thing someone doesn’t quite understand or recognize could be panned off as Greek or French
It could be that if the person was speaking in French, the listener might misunderstand and assume that they’re saying something inappropriate. Such as when somebody cusses or speaks under their breath in another language, so as not to attract any unneeded attention of wrath of the listener who doesn’t understand the language. It could have just adapted to that version due to people being self conscious about what other people are saying to/about them in another language. ‘Pardon my French’ could just be a way of apologizing in another language. Nowadays when people outwardly curse or say something that would be frowned upon they might say the idiom. Just like if a person says “Just saying” or “no offense” it could be basically the same principle.
Hurray! I had to read almost 2/3rds of the way down the list before “CommonSenser on August 9, 2011 at 5:35 am” nailed the most probable answer.
Reading any British literature from the 19th century, French WAS used frequently by the educated classes in conversation (as it was in Russia). It is not merely a “suggestion,” as the article states.
Because French was a marker of education, using profanity would be its antithesis (and entirely unacceptable in refined society). As CommonSenser argues above, the common Brit used the phrase “pardon my French,” when swearing, to lampoon what they viewed as hoity toity elite snobbery.
France successfully invaded Britain in 1066, under William the Conqueror, and subsequently the educated classes in Europe all used French (hence the Italian phase “lingua Francas” meaning international language). It is a fact that French and Cantonese are regarded as the two languages in which profanities are most casually and frequently used. In Victorian England, it became unacceptable to use profanity in polite company so people might swear in French, which offset the shame of using crude language by exhibiting the sophistication and education of the speaker. “Excuse my French” would add a further touch of politeness, especially towards any female companions.
So speakers could have the excitement of cursing, without being condemned for crudeness or poor eduction.
I’d say that it wasn’t associated with profanity, but more likely with impoliteness (speaking the language which others don’t understand). And so when someone would say something impolite (including profanities), then they would use this phrase. Make sense?
Well, I like the seal explanation, because when I’m angry or upset or severely impressed or surprised, I often think about seals.
And the whole mocking of the underclass, of the xenophobic masses, by the people who knew French …. sounds like a typical American projection to me. Too contemporary (another nice Gallicism for the Anglophones). That those colonials slavishly followed the British in mocking anything French, says a lot about the Yanks. There’s a good opportunity for British manipulative diplomacy here …
I don’t know if any culture is more “promiscuous” or “profane” than another. Some are just more honest than others.
Interesting side note: When I ran a department at a large university, I had many international work-study students. I noticed that some of these seemingly traditional students would swear a lot in English. (Understandable, there is a lot of swearing on most campuses–young people free from the restrictions of childhood.)
When I asked them to translate the curse word into their language, most would demure or say that they couldn’t because it was a very bad word. To which I, lifelong lover of profanity, would say, then you shouldn’t use it in English.
@Carolyn, it’s phoque actually and the pronunciation is quite different to that of the F-word; other than that, spot on.
It’s also emotional. When it comes to how I feel in a conversation when someone is talking about something I know nothing about and I am trying to be there and loved. So as the above posts, they may say: Excuse my french, as it is frank, yet incomprehsensible.
IF you ask me, the fact that it is used as slang, like many words are now being used as slang from previous meanings, just shows how darkness is creeping up on us: CLOSER AND CLOSER. Then you fucking people here might say “that doesn’t make sense, Joe.”
The fact speaking a different language, or even tralking about a subject another can’t handle following, is offensive. Language represents different languages: difference. Difference yields less connection. “LESS” Soon or later, things get darker and darker. The many words presented on dictionary.com that have been shown to have an old meaning that now has a new meaning.. And NOW have a slang meaning… are just showing us how fucked we are in the end of the JeLSUIS years! Fuck Jesus anyways. I am so fucking tired of his name. People make him so annoying.
I mean look at us! Lots of people smoke cigarettes or tobacco and STILL debate subconsciously whether it’s good or not. That’s SLAVERY in front of our eyes and NO ONE AGREES! LOTS OF PEOPLE spend VALUABLE MONEY ON WORTHLESS CELL PHONE BILLS LIKE UNLIMITED TEXTING AND INTERNET. Jesus called you hypocrites? I CALL YOU SLAVES WHO WANT TO BE SLAVES~!
Slander will soon morph into slum. That’s your definition. You might as well read more news on Kurt Cobain on dictionary.com than to go anymore about your lives without knowing the truth. When slander morphs into slum, our minds will be “let loose.” When that happens, we either will experience Nirvana AND/OR lots of death. OH THE GREAT engine…. THE whirlwind blows so strongly… yet so faint… yet closer and closer… still without a sound… SO powerful… and no one sees it… getting closer… a powerful powerful whirlwind… WIND… a powerful engine that blows…. So hard.
I’m listening to so much shiut about God on this radio right now. I can’t wait until I submit this comment to get rid them. “God … a relationship with God is a process”. What’s going to happen with that process when the whirlwind blows over? AND SO FROM THE BIBLE, THEY SAY GOD WILL TAKE HIS CHRISTIANS INTO HEAVEN AWAY FROM THE HELL ON EARTH! Yeahg… which is death…. right.. Right, bitch, that’s what heaven i sgoing to be when he casts a light to collect you… YOUR SOULS… without your bodies…. left DEAD on the ground.
From meaning to meaning. From meaning to slang, from slang to slum. FRom slum to death.
Pardon my Hollywood, but you are all arguing like a bunch of little Fockers.
Perhaps…it means just that…lol! Pardon my French! I should have talked to you in English…
I know following William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, French was spoken more by royalty and by anyone associated with them – basically the wealthy, and French was seen as more sophisticated while English was the language of the peasants. We still consider French words to be “fancier” than laymen words, for example: ‘chamber’ (from fre. chambre) is a classier way of saying ‘room’, ‘aroma/odour’ sounds smarter than ’smell’. I think “pardon my French” is a humorous idiom to begin with, so saying non-classy words and referring to them as “French” is funny because the French words we normally borrow are sophisticated, not obscene.
Charlie on August 12, 2011 at 7:43 am
Perhaps…it means just that…lol! Pardon my French! I should have talked to you in English…
However, that would be considered naive. It obviously has something to do with:
Lynn Mannix on August 7, 2011 at 10:52 am
In days gone by, the English and the French were not on very good terms. Perhaps the English considered ANY phrase in French to be profane.
So put yourself in the situation. Say you were speaking to someone and having a polite conversation in approximately 1895. As you have this conversation with a colleague you let a profanity slip. The colleague that you are speaking with seems a bit shocked at your use of an obscene phrase so you feel the need to cover it up. Using the idea that several people spoke both English and French languages but not everyone understood, you try and cover up the language by betting that this person does not know French and therefore would not understand a word especially when used in such a candid manner. So you try apologizing for speaking French because that is less offending than the obscenity that you just spoke, the person lets it go, some other person notices and uses it in a similar situation. Thus, a phrase is born.
As French WAS indeed a foreign language to most speakers of English, and as speakers of English can be counted upon to commit an occasional error of usage — even in their native language (English), it was never much of a surprise when the English speaker — sprinkling his speech with occasional French words or phrases — made an error in his French…
Sometimes this was deliberately done (for effect) or not (understandably), and the result was that there were rather frequent little awkward moments in conversations decorated with the participants’ favorite French delicacies-of-the-day…
And an apology would be required to set things back in balance.
This happened so much, that these apologetic pauses became almost common-place..
“Oh — pardon me….my French is a little off…”, devolved into “Pardon me…my French…”, then to “Pardon…my French…”.
It is in those cases that the “error” in the French of one speaker had been intentional, that we see the beginning of today’s usage of the phrase.
A slight, or insult (playfully or not) could be delivered, and then “retracted”, with the (now common) apologetic phrase “Pardon my French”.
A similarly awkward moment occurs after an obscenity or curse has been delivered (playfully or not), which the issuer wishes immediately to nullify.
And the “natural” thing to say, is that phrase which has become the customary form of retraction — “Pardon my French”.
When I read Chrissy on August 10, 2011 at 8:06 pm about the American Soldiers coming back from Normandy, it was the first time I said yeah, that’s it. It just rings true because of the way I think idioms catch on (the phrase is commonly used by a specific subgroup and then it catches on with the general public). To me, the theory represents a more direct (and thus more likely) connection (i.e. there was no need to cross class lines). Is the idiom commonly used outside of the US–for example, in England? My guess would be not so much.
Or maybe it’s just because profanity and French are both so unpleasing to the ears…
I think it would make sense if the person saying it thought the hearer did not recognize the vulgar word as such AND did not recognize that the vulgar word was not French.
The Catholic Church was having some work done at a convent. After a day of blue language, the Mother Superior approached the supervisor and asked him if he could have his men tone it down a bit. The foreman replied that his guys were down-to-earth laborers, who called a spade a spade. That’s the problem, she replied, they don’t, they call it a fXXcking shovel.
@ Kelly & Chrissy
Pardon my French existed in England long before WW I. Usage in the US may have become more common after 1918, but it was here before then too.
qu’est-ce que je sais? I know nothing.
@ scooby doo
Shouldn’t you have said “rardon ry Rench” after that?
A lot of the explanations so far seem to be over-interpreting.
At certain time in Britain, the only language (other than English) anyone would have had anything to do with (which was probably not much) is French, so “French” can simply stand in place of the word “language”- an example of synecdoche.
When someone finds they have uttered a profanity, they want to say “Pardon my [bad] language”. But they also want to be slightly less bald than to simply say that, so they make that substitution. Maybe it is meant to demonstrate that they have some capacity for wit contrary to what the initial profanity might suggest.
To me it suggests a lack of originality, but of course the phrase might now be used with some degree of knowing irony.
@ Dai Gwynne
Brit wit?? Surely you jest! Perhaps among the upper class, but the type of Brit most likely to use this phrase would demonstrate all the subtlety of a brick through a plate glass window. Profanity…Oh, pardon my French. Fart…Oh, pardon my French. Belch…Pardon my French. Those with wit wouldn’t use this phrase.
I always guessed someone would say a profanity and then “cover it up” by pretending they were speaking French. Or they would say something taboo but in French so not to be offensive to other company.
I suspect it started when ladies were meant to be so terribly refined they didn’t understand swearing, so blokes could swear, and then say ‘pardon my french’ and everybody could politely pretend it had been french all along.
Watch Monty Pythons the holy grail to get a feel for how the English still feel about french. When I lived in Minnesota, we always made jokes about the neighboring state!
Personally I use ‘Pardon my French’ after I swear (a bad habit) and I thought it’s French because, well, in France they sort of swear after every word and they have a lot of fowl-words. Although, as I think of it, if that would’ve been the reason why it’s ‘French’ then it should be ‘Excuse my Russian’. xD
this phrase would demonstrate all the subtlety of a brick through a plate glass window. Profanity
I always thought it was because the b word sounds similar to the french word bische which meant deer.
in days gone by the english and the french were not in good terms
1 – since french is one of the most popular and speaked globally by many countries
2 – the french pronounication and terms eveknow are very similar to the neglsi word are pronounced in avery different way, a more “classy” way
well the fact that i speak both languages, you can see the similarities in both language, evenknow i have to admit the neglsih is much easier teh french, le francais est plus interessant et sophistique que l’anglais ….
I’d just like to say to Archon (I know I’m a little late for this) but the Normans weren’t bloody French. It was the Norman conquest. The Normans came from Scandinavia.
Most likely the English hated the French and any word in French was a Profanity to them.