Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Au Contraire

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 22, 2010

The phrase “au contraire” means to strongly  suggest that the opposite of what is being presented is really the case.  However, over the decades, the phrase has taken on a slightly campy context and is found in cartoons, books, plays, films, etc., when drama and humour are meant to tackle an impossible situation as presented by the character.

The first major struggle in England was to get legal texts into English instead of in French or Latin.  The problem of using English came about in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.  In defeating the Anglo-Saxons, William became the King of England.  William and his followers spoke a type of French and all of their legal documents were in Latin, and French.  

English, by contrast, was considered the language of the defeated class who was also considered to be of lower class than that of their vanquisher. 

Even though English was the language of the common man in England, all legal proceedings were in French until the Statute of Pleading was enacted in 1362.  This statute stated that all pleas were to be “pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English Tongue.” 

So while the phrase “au contraire” has been used by anglophones for centuries, it became part of the English language some time after 1362 despite its humble French beginnings.

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