“Pardon my French,” is one of those weird quotes that non-native English speakers might find hard to comprehend in normal conversations. It does not make sense. Exactly what is the speaker asking a pardon for, and why does it specifically have to be French? And why is the usual follow up to this quote a stream of choice expletives and insults?
An example of how this phrase would be used in an everyday context: “I hate Jessica. Pardon my French, but she is such a [insert any vulgar word for an unsavory woman here], and I just can’t stand listening to her rants all day.” So, “Pardon my French” here is used by the speaker to warn the other party that they will hear a particularly vulgar word or phrase that may or may not offend their sensibilities (depending on their proclivity for cursing). It’s a way to deaden the effect of curses that may sound jarring to the ears of some. In other cases, “pardon my French” is also used for less harsh insults (often without vulgarities involved) for comedic effect.
History of Pardon My French
So, how exactly did “pardon my French” became the de facto warning phrase for cursing in normal everyday conversations? Why not Russian or German (whose language sound much harder to the ears)
To delve into the origin of this saying (and the reason why French is the unfortunate subject involved in it), it’s important to dive into the history of the world nearly a millennium past. In the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French became reviled especially among the English due to their part in the occupation of England under William the Conqueror’s command. This situation has been further exacerbated nearly three centuries later, in 1337, when the Hundred Years War between France and England started. After all the troubles that France had put them through, it’s understandable why the English opinion of French soldiers (and speakers of the language too, we supposed) were less than savory. This dislike of anything related to France boiled over into the English language. “French” was used as an adjective to describe anything that is considered vulgar, lewd, crass, pornographic, and distasteful. For example, syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, was called as the “French pox.” Condoms were “French letters” and erotica were “French novels.” When you take a “French leave” you’re leaving a party or any other gathering without saying goodbye to the host.
Reviled so much was the language that it became a running joke among the English to apologize if a word of French would be uttered in polite conversation. People would say “excuse my French” or “pardon my French” should they need to utter a word of that tongue in public. Soon enough, this saying eventually passed usage onto real English vulgarities and curses, even those that do not have a word of French in them.
An Alternate History
Another alternate origin history of the phrase dates to the 19th century. Noblemen and other members of the elite (those who had the financial means to travel to other countries) had the habit of dropping French words when speaking to sound sophisticated and/or highly educated. This was seen as an annoying habit by some. To make fun of this kind of self-styled intellectuals, the masses would use the same phrase that the elites use “pardon my French” when they want to utter vulgarities and curses. Now, instead of being used as a phrase for snobbery, “pardon my French” morphed into something that you would utter whenever you want to insult someone.
Use in Popular Media
The use of “pardon my French” in popular media is well-documented. It is often used as a preface to curses and insults, and for comedic effect.
The earliest known written record wherein this phrase was used was in the 1830 edition of The Lady’s Magazine. In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day off, the phrase was used by the character when he was shouting over the phone at Mr. Rooney the principal. It was also used by Bueller himself when he insults Cameron at being “so tight” that a coal shoved up in his behind would produce a diamond in two weeks. There’s also an episode of Seinfeld wherein George recalls a date wherein he once told a woman that it was he who invented the phrase “pardon my French.”
Of course, we now know where this saying really originated from.