Do the French cuss like sailors? Is it naturally French to let the F-bomb drop on a dime?
Yet, people have been saying “Pardon my French” for years when apologizing for their foul language.
Kind of also makes you wonder what the French say when they let a “merde” slip out at the dinner table in front of grand-mere.
Actually, the phrase is an English dig at the French. England and France, although no longer actually waging medieval battles over lands, have been at odds for literally over a thousand years – and that doesn’t just go away overnight. So, when an Englishman (or woman) utters an obscenity, he or she might look around the room sheepishly and say, “Pardon my French.” Because, you know, the French are hedonistic bastards raised by wolves, and let’s not forget that.
For the historic origins of the feud between England and France, we go back to 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy conquered England. As a result, French-speaking Normans began to rule in all positions of power. As a way to appear friendly to their new rulers, the nobles of England began to incorporate as much French into their language as possible. When they found themselves in conversation with less sophisticated types, they would assume their French would not be understood, so they apologized for using it.
Centuries later, literature incorporated the apology – like in this example from Karl Von Miltie’s The Twelve Nights, written in 1831:
My dear Mr. Heartwell, you are come to see me at last. Bless me, how fat you are grown!—absolutely round as a ball:—you will soon be as embonpoint (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.
Embonpoint is French for stout. It’s meant as an insult, of course, but the speaker apologizes only for saying it in French.
Since the Normans no longer rule England, the French language has faded from common usage. Yet the phrase remains, evolved, as it were, to mean, “Sorry for my flaming profanity.”
Today, your flaming profanity is less likely to turn heads or make maidens blush, so even asking for such a pardon is getting more quaint.