The Origin of “Pardon My French”
The term “pardon my French” has been used regularly for over 100 years, but have you ever wondered the origin of the phrase? It has been universally used to excuse the fact that you are about to swear or use offensive language, but do the French really swear more than anyone? Where did the phrase come from? And how did it end up so widely used, even in popular movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! Any why isn't it "dismiss my Danish"! Especially when you don't have to speak French or even be a Francophile to use the phrase.
Earliest Use of the Phrase
One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase was in a story published by Karl Von Miltie in 1831, in his book The Twelve Nights. Karl writes:
“My dear Mr. Heartwell, you are come to see me at last. Bless me, how fat you are grown!—absolutely round as a ball:—you will soon be as embonpoint (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.”
For those unfamilair with the term, embonpoint is defined to describe persons who are considered larger than usual. In this instance therefore, he is not apologizing for the insult, rather apologizing for saying the insult in the French langauge. The phrase became more commonly used during the 19th century, however it did not make its entry into the Oxford English Dicitionary until 1901. To truly understand the origins of the phrase, we must therefore take a step back.
The Arrival of French Words in England
To truly understand the influence of French on the English language, we need to go back to the 11th Century. Following the Battle of Hastings in the 10th Century, when William the Conqueror invaded England, over 10,000 words filtered into the English language.
Although William tried to learn English (at 43!), he soon gave up. Inside 20 years of Norman occupation, almost all the religious institutions in England were French-speaking. The aristocrats brought with them large French-speaking retinues, and soon the language of the aristocracy became French. Then when the English nobility lost their estates in France in 1204 they adopted English as their main language as a source of national pride.
The English Language Fights Back
Eventually English did take over from French, but about 10,000 introduced French words are still used today. Hybrid words have evolved directly from French. For example, sabotage originates from the French word sabot, which is a wooden clog worn by French and Breton peasants. As industrialisation swept through Europe, angry peasants soon discovered that a sabot, when placed in machinery, would effectively bring the factories to a halt, thus sabotaging the factories. Even the word coupon, comes from the French verb couper, meaning to cut.
Intertwining of Languages and Origins of Pardon my French
Thanks to the intertwining of the French (and other languages), with the English languages, English subsequently evolved into a rich and versatile global language. So how did this lead to “pardon my French”? The phrase was originally used in England when someone used a French word, when speaking to someone who may not have had the social standing to understand French.
Due to the vast history of conflict between the French and the English, “pardon my French” soon became a dig at the French! As adversity to the French grew in England, anything regarded as rude or uncouth was dubbed as French, regardless of whether it was or not! Did you know other phrases were used at the time that also took a bash at the French, but have become less commonly used in today's language. These include the phrase "to take a French leave", which means to leave a party impolitely.
We should be thanking the French for adding so many interesting and richly historical words to the English language!
Why not study French through films? Check out our blog on the best films to help you learn French!