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Why do we say ‘pardon my French?’

Have you ever wondered why we say ‘pardon my French?’ We have, so we asked some French language experts and it’s a fascinating story… here’s what they say:

The term “pardon my French” has been used regularly for almost 200 years. It’s used to excuse the fact that you’ve sworn, or are about to swear or use offensive language. It’s a widely used term, even in popular movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! And 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.”

Embonpoint is defined to describe persons who are considered larger than usual. In this instance, he is not apologising for the insult, rather for saying the insult in the French language. The phrase became more commonly used during the 19th century, however it did not make its entry into the Oxford English Dicitionary until 1901.

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, the French language became de rigeur.
Although William tried to learn English (at the age of 43), he soon gave up. Within 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. When the English nobility lost their estates in France in 1204 they adopted English as their main language as a source of national pride.

Eventually English did take over from French, but about 10,000 introduced French words are still used today. And there ae hybrid words which have evolved directly from French. For example, sabotage originates from the French word sabot, which is a wooden clog worn by French 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), English subsequently evolved into a rich and versatile global language. ‘Pardon my French’ 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. However with conflict between the French and English led to the word being used to indicate that anything regarded as rude or uncouth was dubbed as French, regardless of whether it was or not!

Have a listen to our “How to speak French” podcast episode to learn the three most important words in French!

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