Pardon My French

Oh, #%*$!!

Oop! Did I say that out loud? Pardon my French!

Pardon my French. Where do you suppose that idiom came from? Really, what does it mean? Under most circumstances, the expression is an apology for when the speaker curses or says something vulgar that might offend people in present company.

But isn’t French the language of loooove, a language of romance? I think of bistros by the Seine, twinkling lights on the Eiffel tower at night, long-legged beauties strolling along with pink poodles, suave men and champagne, love-sick Pepe LePew, and mimes. To me it seems if the French curse, it would sound down right silly or too formal sounding to be offensive.

So where did the expression come from? Why isn’t it Excuse my Swahili, or Pardon my Portuguese?

It all started in the 19th century. English and French were dominating languages in Western society.  But from there, many have their own opinions of how the expression became linked to profanity.

Well-educated people spoke both languages. But if one of these intellectual English stiff upper lips spoke French to someone, well, less cultured, they might be using the euphemism to show-off while looking down their noses.

Maybe the speaker meant the expression as a dig. It goes without saying England and France weren’t always the best of buddies. Could the utterance be linked to the chauvinistic mindset of “us” against “them” and thus the speaker demeaning the one being spoken to? Or is it simply that anything out of a Frenchman’s mouth was considered offensive, thereby when cursing one might pardon themselves for acting like a Frenchman?

Another suggestion stems from the British attributing many of life’s unpleasant misfortunes with the French, most notably that involving sex and the vile diseases that come from doing the naughty. So when something repulsive was said, the speaker apologized (maybe sarcastically) for being representative of France.

The French are pretty laid back people. And from what I understand, cursing is not seen as vulgar as it is expressive. Perhaps when someone let’s loose they are only being frank.

Theories abound, but what do you think? Why Pardon my French and not Pardon my Latin or Excuse my ass-backward Southern drawl? I’d love to hear your reasons.

30 responses to “Pardon My French”

  1. laurie kellogg says:

    I never really thought about it, Jenn. It’s a good question, though. I think your speculation that “Anything that came out of a Frenchman’s mouth was considered offensive” makes a lot of sense. I like discovering where idioms come from. I have a dictionary of idioms and sayings. Sometime I’ll have to look up Pardon My French. This was a great, thought provoking post!

    • Jenn! says:

      Thanks, Laurie.
      I think there are several plausible reasons. But then, isn’t it strange how idioms come about? How do certain expressions come to be? It’s all Greek to me. 😉

  2. Rita Henuber says:

    I also wondered how it came about. I was told by a rowdy group at an outdoor café in Paris, the English said this every time they did something that wasn’t what they considered polite. The group didn’t mind at all. The feeling was anything that separated them from the Brits was good.

    • Jenn! says:

      Honestly, it’s such a normal part of today’s language, I would find it hard to be offended by the phrase. but then, most things just roll off my shoulders. *shrug*

  3. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    I love word and phrase origins. Whenever I read a historical and they use a phrase like “cat got your tongue” I wonder when, where and how that phrase came to be and if the phrase was even used in that period. And some phrases started out longer, but were shortened over time. It’s facinating stuff. I often wonder what slang words we speak now that will eventually end up in the dictionary, along with what phrases will be adopted and which ones will just fade away.

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      I had to check that one out, Kelly– Here’s what I found:

      Theory #1
      The saying comes from the Middle East, where as punishment, liars had their tongues ripped out and fed to the king’s cats.

      Theory #2
      Fear of a whipping with a cat-o’-nine-tails, or “cat” for short, could paralyze a victim into silence.

      Theory #3
      The expression comes from the Middle Ages when witches were greatly feared and often put to death. It was believed that if you saw a witch, her cat would somehow “steal” or control your tongue so you couldn’t report the sighting.

    • Jenn! says:

      I have a book that defines certain expressions, Kelly, and you are right, it really is fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, some of the sayings and words people use these days make me cringe and I wonder just how educated folks are when they throw them around. maybe I’m just getting old. LOL!

  4. Amanda Brice says:

    I love learning about the origin of phrases. Super fun!

  5. Diane kelly says:

    I’m going to reveal what a word nerd I am here, but I love the NPR show “A Way with Words.”. They talk about funny expressions and where they came from. It’s really interesting!

  6. Elisa Beatty says:

    Fun post, Jenn!

    LOL—the disdain the English and French have for each other is amazing. Given how much more sophisticated and elegant French culture has always been (cuisine, fashion, art, and yes, romance), and the fact that “English” was a guttural Germanic language before it merged with French to become our modern language, it’s pretty darn cheeky for the English to call their trashy slips of the tongue “French.”

    I love this kind of linguistic history. Just have to toss in a few phrases (allegedly) originating with Shakespeare: “wild goose chase,” “set your teeth on edge,” “love is blind,” “fight fire with fire,” “eaten out of house and home,” “as pure as driven snow,” “dead as a doornail,” even “the Queen’s English” and “household words.”

  7. I love word and phrase origins! I can see this particular phrase originating from the English. Their relationship with France has always been a bit bumpy, so this theory is quite logical.

    Too fun! ~D~

  8. Tia Ramirez says:

    The idea of it originating from the Brits makes sense. This blog reminded me of the phrase, “Unladylike,” and how the English were about being “Ladylike” and “Gentlemanly”. Also the saying that it is unladylike to curse… well… that makes you wonder if it really was a dig at the French.

  9. I love this kind of linguistic mystery! I even checked my OED and it’s first reference in published language was from 1865, so it must have been in usage for a long time before that. What fun. Now I’m thinking of how I can get a character to say this. 🙂
    Thanks for a fun post.

  10. liz talley says:

    Fun topic and since I’m from the Deep South, I find myself saying a lot of things I don’t understand….and my mother says even more things that don’t make sense. I should probably collect many of them and try and figure them out…but it likely take a month of Sundays. 🙂

  11. I often go to the dictionary to check phrases but this is one I’ve never even thought about it. When I say it, it’s always because I’m swearing. Have to watch what I say. Thanks, Jenn!


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