The Grammarphobia Blog

Pardon my French

(An updated post about “Pardon my French” ran on Jan. 31, 2014)

Q: In an old “Seinfeld” episode, George admits his willingness to say anything to impress a woman, including that he’d coined the phrase “pardon my French.” Well, who did come up with this great expression?

A: Mary McCarthy is the first writer known to have used the exact phrase “pardon my French,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel, she puts the words in the mouth of one of her characters: “ ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’ ”

But the term “French” has been used euphemistically for bad language since the early 1900s and probably even earlier. In Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), J. Redding Ware says the expression “loosing French” meant violent language, though he doesn’t give a date for its first use.

James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), uses “bad French” to mean bad language. More to the point, in All Trees Were Green (1933), Michael Harrison writes: “A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.”

The adjective “French,” of course, has been used in a negative way in English for hundreds of years.

A 1503 citation in the OED, for instance, refers to venereal disease as the “Frenche pox.” The French, naturally, referred to it as the English disease. Touché!

And “French” has been used since the mid-18th century to describe racy novels and pictures. As an example, here’s an excerpt from Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister (1842):

Or, my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.

Belial, as you probably know, is the personification of evil in the Old Testament and a fallen angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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