Why do we say “Excuse my French”?

The phrase ‘excuse/pardon my French’ has been used to excuse the speaker’s profanity for years, and is even heard in popular television and film franchises. But just where did this strange phrase come from?

The rivalry between England and France is no well-kept secret.

Ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the two countries have been butting heads, and this rivalry was made all the worse by the Hundred Years’ War. Even the French Revolution did little to ease the tensions between the two nations, as can be seen in this quote by British war hero Horatio Nelson:

“Firstly, you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own regarding their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king, and thirdly you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil.”

The English reaction to the French Revolution soon turned negative, as can be seen in the above caricature

The phrase “Pardon my French” or “Excuse my French” was originally used to, literally, pardon the speaker for speaking French words the listener might not understand, with this example from an 1830 copy of The Lady Magazine: “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..”

However, as adversity to anything French spread into British life, anything that was regarded as rude or uncouth was dubbed ‘French’, regardless of whether it actually was or not and the non-literal use of “Pardon my French” or “Excuse my French” was recorded in the 1901 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, with an early example of veiled profanity offered in EJ Wakefield’s 1845 travelogue Adventures in New Zealand I which explained that “The enraged headsman spares no ‘bad French’ in explaining his motives.”

One of the favourite French figures of ridicule in Britain was Napoleon.

This English dig at their long time rivals through speech itself is not unique to this phrase, for example ‘to take a French leave’ was to leave a party impolitely. The English aren’t the only one to play with words in this way, and plenty of similar French phrases became popular, such as the equivalent ‘flee English-style’. A nickname for a condom in England, ‘French letter’, became an ‘English cap’ in French.

Although this rivalry has become far friendlier in modern times, some of these phrases have stuck around – of course, everyone knows what a ‘French kiss’ is.