The Grammarphobia Blog

Pardon my French, revisited

Q: Have you ever looked into “pardon my French”? I think it would make an interesting, and perhaps titillating, item for the blog.

A: As a matter of fact, we ran a post about “pardon my French” back in 2008, but we think it’s time for an update.

Robert A. Simon, a novelist, librettist, and New Yorker critic, seems to have been the first person to use “pardon my French” in writing to excuse swearing or other questionable language.

The earliest example of the usage we’ve found in a search of Google Books is from Simon’s 1923 novel Our Little Girl:

“ ‘Hell, you don’t want anybody to impress you!’

“Mrs. Loamford stiffened. Harper noted the reaction.

“ ‘Pardon my French, Mrs. Loamford,’ he apologized.”

However, similar expressions have been used since the mid-1800s, soon after English speakers began using the term “French” euphemistically for bad language, according to written examples in the OED.

We’ve found even earlier examples of “pardon my French” used literally to excuse the use of a French expression in conversation, either because the listener might not understand or because the usage might be taken as pretentious.

Here’s an example from Randolph, an 1823 novel by John Neal: “I do not believe that I am yet ‘une fille perdue!’ Pardon my French. You know that I am not very ostentatious of such things.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of “French” used for bad language is from Adventures in New Zealand, an 1845 book by Edward Wakefield: “The enraged headsman spares no ‘bad French’ in explaining his motives.”

The dictionary’s first citation for an expression similar to “pardon my French” used to excuse questionable language is from Marian Rooke, an 1865 novel by Henry Sedley: “Excuse my French.”

The latest Oxford example uses “pardon my French” to excuse an attack on another kind of bad English—academese.

In the May 12, 2005, issue of the New York Times Book Review, a book is described as “a welcome change from theory-infected academic discourse, pardon my French.”

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 mal des Anglais. 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 was the personification of evil in the Old Testament and a fallen angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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