Idiomatica with Michael Kwan

English is filled with all sorts of strange idioms. Some of them make sense. A lot of them don’t. We can’t believe that golden retrievers and orange tabbies are literally falling from the sky when we say it’s raining cats and dogs. Some idioms, on the other hand, may trace their origins to a more literal interpretation, as appears to be the case with “pardon my French.”

Before we go any further, let me first introduce this as the first in a new series here on Beyond the Rhetoric. The Grammar 101 series approaches a broad range of grammar issues, explaining why you might want to spell a word one way or another. I’ve covered idioms as part of that series before, but these posts usually revolve around incorrect versions of these idioms.

Instead of “might as well,” someone might write “minus well.” Instead of “nip it in the bud” and “to exact revenge,” someone might mistakenly say “nip it in the butt” and “to extract revenge,” respectively. The new Idiomatica series isn’t really about that. It’s more about exploring the origins of English idioms and why we use them.

And so, we start with “pardon my French.”

The common usage today is such that a person might say “pardon my French” or “excuse my French” either before or after they use a curse word. This usually only comes up if the speaker uses a single swear word in passing. It becomes largely unnecessary if this person is dropping F-bombs left and right, because we start to expect the foul language. It might come up after a cuss-filled tirade or rant though.

The origin of the English idiom traces back some time in the 1800s when it was used in a far more literal fashion. Someone, presumably from higher society, may say “pardon my French” when they wanted to insert a French phrase. The turn of phrase carried a certain je ne sais quoi, as tossing in a romantic-sounding foreign language may have felt especially à la mode.

And I don’t mean it was topped with ice cream.

Somewhere along the way, the meaning started to shift. Instead of “apologizing” for using French, it start to “cover up” swear words. Why? Part of this likely goes back to the centuries-old rivalry between the French and the English people. Things that are “French” came to be associated with anything is lewd, distasteful or unsavory.

That’s why a “French kiss” is a little extra dirty with all that extra tongue action. That’s why the “French disease” is herpes and the “French pox” is syphilis. A “French novel” refers to pornography and a “French letter” is a condom. Interestingly enough, this goes both ways. Redingote anglaise (literally an English frock or coat) is French slang for a condom.

I’m not entirely sure if “excuse my French” is actually offensive to the people of France. For all my francophone readers, what do you think? Does it bother you that cursing in English is somehow connected to the French language?