February 18, 2015

Dirty Etymology: Pardon My French

I'm getting tricky with my etymology endeavors and choosing a phrase that refers to swearing rather than a swear word itself. But I say this about 16 times a day. I swear. Then I pardon myself. It's a vicious circle of four-letter words with a "Pardon my French" thrown in for good measure.

The thing is, I never paused to wonder why we (the royal "we") use this phrase. What does it mean? Where did it come from?

The French and the English have a long-standing rivalry (but I'm not going to bore you with wars and dates). Suffice it to say, that by the start of the 1800s, many things that the English considered obscene were tagged with the word "French," so pornography (oh, that pornography) was called "a French novel" and condoms were called "French letters."

Hold on. I have to check something.

None of the articles I read slid "French kissing" into the list of insults. But I found a separate article on French kissing that implies the term was added for the same reasons. That kissing French-style was considered immoral and that anything sensual and immoral must be French. (Another possibility is that France was the first country to allow PDAs.)

An early reference (1831) features a French word in an English sentence, followed by an apology for using it, although there's nothing at all profane about the word. In 1865, there is a reference to simply having bad taste and excusing that as "French."

Now, this is my favorite part. Yes, the English seem to have some feelings for the French—but this is in no way a one-sided issue. While the English call leaving a party without properly saying goodbye to the host "taking a French leave" — the French call the same act fleeing English style. And while the English call a condom a "French letter." The French call a condom  an "English hood."

"English kissing" does not seem to have an alternative in French.

But that made me wonder if there is a phrase that means, "Pardon my English" en francais (pardon mine, of course).


No comments: