Salutations, ladies and gentlemen! Allow me to introduce myself: I am Guinevere of the Glen, the Grammary Guru. I realize that my name is too long, so please call me Gwen.
Yes, you read that right! This very website you are reading right now is my domain. For two years now, I and my pen warriors have imparted nuggets of wisdom to you, our beloved readers! We figured it’s time we step forward from the shadows to answer all your questions and queries, related to literature, grammar, editing, language, and more, all for the love of English!
As you peruse our new series, you will be introduced to my mighty pen warriors, all of whom have their own area of specialty. I, Gwen, shall respond to your queries regarding the evolution of this masterpiece of a language we call English. While I may sound like someone from the medieval times, I have a mastery of English past and present, so I promise to answer all your questions to the best of my ability.
In fact, I was informed of a query from one of you. Here is the question you readers posted:
Why do we say “pardon my French”?
What a mighty name! And what a mighty question as well.
For all those unfamiliar, “Pardon my French” is an expression we use before or after a curse word or any strong language. Here are some examples:
I have seen the designs she submitted and, pardon my French, they look like sh*t.
Apparently, Sean has no bloody clue of what we’re talking about. Pardon my French.
F***! Oops, pardon my French.
The phrase dates back to as early as the 1800s in England. It is thought that the English say “pardon my French” whenever they accidentally use French expressions in conversation. It is assumed that they apologize for their use of an expression which many people may not understand.
One of the earliest examples of the phrase being used in publication comes from The Lady’s Magazine in 1830:
Bless me, how fat you are grown! - absolutely as round as a ball: - you will soon be as enbon-point (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.
The word enbon-point is a French adjective meaning “plump.” In this context, the writer of the passage was literally apologizing for using French.
Eventually, certain French phrases became more popular in English itself (an example would be the phrase je ne sais quoi), but people continued to use the phrase “pardon my French” out of habit.
As for the next part of the story . . . that’s where the details become a lot more confusing. Nobody really knows why “Pardon my French” became synonymous to excusing one’s profanity; however, linguists and historians have a guess or two.
Take a French leave – Leave a party without taking the leave of the host
French letter – a condom
French disease – syphilis
Even more interesting is the fact that the French counterpart of these idioms all have the word “Anglaise” or “English” in all of them!
So there you go, Arthur! No one knows exactly why we say “Pardon my French” before saying something vulgar, but we have some good guesses, all pointing toward the idea that the English and the French don’t quite seem to get along well. Thank you so much for the wonderful question, Arthur! Keep reading and keep learning!
Got a question about the English language in mind? Then drop a line and send it to the Grammary Guru, your go-to Q&A about all things grammar! For more information and helpful writing tips, check out the 1-Hour Proofreading blog!
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