Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Episode 110: Pardon My French Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 110: Pardon My French

Record Date: May 18, 2021

Air Date: May 19, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week we are going to talk about bad language. Well, not bad language, per se, but a turn of phrase that is often used when someone uses bad language or says something uncouth or mildly inappropriate. This week, we look into the phrase “Pardon My French.” 


 a. euphemistic. Bad language, swearing, esp. in pardon (also excuse) my French.


A mild, indirect, or vague term for one that is considered harsh, blunt, or offensive.


1845   E. J. Wakefield Adventures New Zealand. I. 327   The enraged headsman spares no ‘bad French’ in explaining his motives.

1865   H. Sedley Marian Rooke iv. ix. 342   Excuse my French.

1895   Harper's Mag. Mar. 648/1   Palaces be durned! Excuse my French.

1909   J. R. Ware Passing Eng. Victorian Era 171/1   Loosing French, violent language in English.

1936   M. Harrison All Trees were Green ii. 104   A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.

1955   M. McCarthy Charmed Life (1956) ii. 52   ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’

1966   A. La Bern Goodbye Piccadilly xxv. 220   Well I'll be buggered. Excuse my French.

1979   M. Leigh Abigail's Party i, in Abigail's Party & Goose-pimples (1983) 28   I mean, to a film star, getting divorced is like going to the lavatory, if you'll pardon my French.

2005   N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 29 May 12/3   The a welcome change from theory-infected academic discourse, pardon my French.

This phrase seemed to start as a literal statement. Someone might say a French word, then apologize for using French. It’s hard to tell why, though, someone might apologize for saying a French word while speaking in English.

In 2013, Melissa Blevins posted on the Today I Found Out website:


Since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the French have alternately pissed off, and looked down upon, the British. By 1337 when the two countries began the Hundred Years War, English opinion of French soldiers, as expressed by Shakespeare’s King Henry V, was pretty low: “I thought upon one pair of English legs did march three Frenchmen.”

End Quote

They continue...


Carrying their antipathy for the French into civilian life after the wars, English speakers were now using the word “French” to denote all things perceived to be lewd and obscene. By the first half of the 19th century, syphilis was known as the “French pox”, pornography was a “French novel” and condoms were called “French letters”.

End Quote

The OED also has an entry for some of these more sexual terms. Patrons can check out the Behind the Scenes video to catch more on that subject, but it’s a bit too racy for the general podcasting audience, so we’ll move on from here. 

In 2015, Frances White makes a similar case to Melissa’s in an online essay for History


Ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the two countries have been butting heads, and this rivalry was made all the worse by the Hundred Years’ War. 

End Quote

Frances goes on to say


The phrase “Pardon my French” or “Excuse my French” was originally used to, literally, pardon the speaker for speaking French words the listener might not understand

End quote

In an 1830 edition of the Lady’s Magazine, I did see an example of this being used in a literal - but also kind of figurative - sense. It’s almost as if it is taking on both roles at once.

1845   Edward Wakefield Adventures New Zealand. I. 327   The enraged headsman spares no ‘bad French’ in explaining his motives.

1855 Maria Jane McIntosh - Two Lives; Or, To Seem and to be

I’ll note the title page says “ By Maria J. McIntosh, Author of Charms and Counter-Charms, Aunt Kitty’s Tales, Conquest and Self-Conquest, etc, etc

Ms. McIntosh was renowned for using contrasting pairs of characters to demonstrate her moral lesson. 

The copy I’m quoting from is from 1855, though the work was originally published in 1846. So it’s possible this quote originated then, but since I can’t find an 1846 copy I don’t want to make the claim. Still, mid-1850s is a pretty safe statement. 

It was in the early 1900s that I started seeing “Pardon my French” in the newspapers.

Florida being Florida, same in 2021 as it was in 1954. 

Before we get to some more modern examples, we want to give a shout out to the folks who make this show possible!

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. 

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Modern Uses

One of the most well-known pop-culture examples comes from the 1986 Ferris Bueler’s Day Off.

The principal thinks the caller is Ferris Bueller pretending to be Bueller’s father. He lets out a string of insults and curses as the person he thinks in Bueller. But when Ferris calls on the other line, Principal Rooney realizes he may actually be talking to Bueller’s actual father. Cameron, Bueller’s friend who is pretending to be Bueller’s father, tells Principal Rooney “Pardon my French, but you are an asshole”

Excuse My French: Fluent French Without the Faux Pas

Is a book by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes 

Hardcover in 2013

Life together, in a bi-lingual relationship, for Rachel and Jean-Christophe created many amusing miscomprehensions and often sheer bewilderment. How do you translate, "Don't beat around the bush," and why does, "to be left high and dry," in English, become, "rester en carafe," in French? Excuse My French! is their solution to all this conversational confusion. The book comprises 700 expressions in English and in French, divided into 12 chapters, which cover all the essential topics in life-including food and drink, money, business work, and sex. It presents the essential idioms and metaphors of the 'other' language in a fresh, light-hearted way that won't make you feel like you're back in a classroom. Packed with quizzes, glossaries, and interesting detail on the historical contexts for how phrases were coined, and illustrated throughout with line drawings, it will improve language skills and promote the Entente Cordiale between tourists, students, and business associates, as well as encourage relationships to blossom between les Gaulois et les Rosbifs all over the world!

From the 2013 album "The Shocking Miss Emerald"

Caro Emerald’s song “Please Excuse My French” has the lyrics:

You must be (You must be)

The Houdini in my life

But you can’t see (You can't see)

I could never be your wife


‘Cause I’m still a lady

No, I’m not some wench

That falls for your lines

I’m not on the fence

Your routine is fading

Boy, I could use a wrench

I know my words won’t fail me

Please excuse my French

Pardon My French: How a Grump American Fell in Love with France by Allen Johnson

Published 2015

To make a friend is a joy. To make a friend in another country is a wonderment--a small miracle. Pardon My French follows an American author who has embraced a daunting mission: not to be a spectator in France but an enthusiastic participant--fully engaged, fully alive. In France, Johnson is like an alien from another planet. Everything is strange to him. His goal is to speak French without going to prison, drive without being squashed like a bug, dance the tango without losing his marriage, and belt out a tune with a world-class jazz combo without being booed off the stage. Repeatedly, the author fearlessly steps into harm's way. He joins a summer acting troop and witnesses the French version of sexual liberation. He pits his rather staid and conventional driving skills against the French speed demons of Languedoc. He tries to be cool in a painting class while sputtering nervously in front of the nude model with the long legs and silky voice. And then, after it all--after the splendor of Christmas on the Mediterranean, the bicycle tours along the French canals, the mountain treks amply supplied with French bread, cheese, and wine--the miracle happens. The often self-deprecating and bungling American meets and falls in love with a beautiful mistress: La belle France. And when he does, an entire village adopts him into a new family--one with a gracious heart and a beautiful French accent.

An interesting note… I ran a few iterations of the Google Ngram to see which phrase was used more, Excuse my French or Pardon my French. While Pardon My French didn’t seem to take off until the 1920s, it caught up quickly. Now Pardon My French is more often seen in both American English and British English than Excuse my French is, but both are still fairly popular. 

Wrap up...

As as we wrap up for today, I have to admit. I’m in love with Caro Emerald’s voice. Shauna, I know you are a big fan of hers as well. And the song we mentioned earlier, Excuse My French, has been an earworm in my head for the past 3 or 4 days. So I decided the best way to honor that was with an episode on the phrase. So if you enjoyed the phrase, you can reach out to Caro Emerald and thank her for the inspiration. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have a modern example of this phrase we should have included this week, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on any of our social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram all @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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