Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Retro Episode 110: Pardon My French


RETRO: Dan gets an earworm and it turns into an entire episode on the phrase, "Pardon My French". Cause that's how it goes sometimes. This week our phrase moves from the early 1800s literal usage to a current way to excuse bad language, with plenty of high points along the way. #BunnyTrails
Originally aired May 19, 2021

 Click to read the show notes
 Welcome to Bunny Trails everyone. This week we are bringing you a retro episode. I recently taught a class in San Antonio and some of the students wanted to hear the story of the phrase Pardon My French. And since this week was super busy for Shauna as she has a looming deadline on a major project, I decided it would be a good week to bring this one back.

And just a quick word of thanks to all of our Patrons who make this show possible, including our top spot, currently occupied by Mary Haslig Lopez, and to our longest serving Patrons Pat and Charlie, our regular contributors Jan, Emily, and JGP, our newest Patron Heather, and a several other Patrons who wish to remain anonymous on the show. You all are a small but mighty team that keeps Bunny Trails free to listen to week after week. Thank you.

And without further ado, which is spelled a-d-o and is not the French word for goodbye, here is episode 110 originally airing May 19, 2021. Here you are Mark, Pardon My French.

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 its 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.
End Quote

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.