Pardon my French origin: Why do we say Excuse my French when we swear?

French Bulldog in Paris postcard postcard

It’s not uncommon to find someone saying “Pardon my French” after a tirade of less-than-dignified language. The classic movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off exemplifies its use when Bueller says: “Pardon my French, but you’re an asshole.” Why would anyone claim a sentence like that is French?

The origin of the phrase “Pardon my French”

It is likely that the origin of this phrase arose initially from aristocracy genuinely apologising for using French words which others did not understand in everyday conversation. Since there were close ties between French and English aristocracy, hundreds of years ago English aristocrats spent much of their time in French castles conversing in French. To this day the  coat of arms in the United Kingdom is in French, reading “Dieu et mon Droit” (God and my Right).

However the explanation for why this phrase evolved to mean “Pardon my filthy language”, is very much similar to the reasons why “French Kiss” came to mean a filthily erotic kiss, “taking French leave” meant to rudely leave a party early without thanking the host, “French disease” came to mean genital herpes, “French-sick” became a synonym for syphilis and “French lessons” became a euphamism for prostitution. It can all be explained if you examine the history of French-English relations.

French-English relations have been fraught with battles and disagreements since 1066, and lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Why was there so much disagreement and hatred between these two nations? It all started when the Frenchman, Duke William of Normandy declared himself King of England in 1066. The new French King of England found it humiliating to swear fealty to his own King of France: What King swears fealty to another King? The French King might have taken offence to the fact that England was ruled by a Frenchman yet the land was not his, despite him being King of all Frenchmen and all that is French! This was likely the start of the tensions between the two nations. Since then, repeated conflicts arose over numerous issues including:

  • There were battles over land and rightful heirs to the thrones in France, complicated by intermarriages between English and French aristocrats, (The Hundred Year War)
  • The two nations found allegiances with opposite camps in disagreements between other nations, (In the Napoleonic Wars, the Italian Wars, the War of the Spanish Succession and even in the American Revolutionary War)
  • Religious conflicts arose between Britain, a Protestant nation after the English Reformation, and the Roman Catholic French
  • Anti-monarch protests in the French Revolution were sneered at with disdain by British royalists.

It was the culmination of hundreds of years of such disagreements which led to a general dislike between the French and the British, and this British animosity towards the French, known as Francophobia, found its way into the language with phrases such as “Pardon my French” after using profanities. Anything that was considered to be indecent or risqué was decidedly attributed to the French as a British expression of disrespect.

It is quite astounding how historic grudges can still be upheld centuries after events occurred.  To this day, traces of some prejudices still live on amidst some Brits and French people, and although more-often-than-not no hostility is meant when these phrases are said, prejudices live on in the language with phrases like “Pardon my French”.

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2 Responses to Pardon my French origin: Why do we say Excuse my French when we swear?

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