Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Pardon My French

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 11, 2011

When someone asks you to pardon their French and they’re not speaking French, what they really mean is that they would like listeners to excuse their use of inappropriate, taboo or swear words.

For example, on September 11, 2009 the Daily Record of Glasgow, Scotland published an article by Grant Lauchlan entitled, “Cookery Kookery” which reviewed the movie “Julie and Julia.”  The lead off paragraph read:

Pardon my French but if you don’t know your poulet sauté aux herbes de Provence from your pissaladire, then you probably won’t have heard of Julia Child. She was America’s answer to Delia Smith and Fanny Craddock combined, a national treasure who wrote Mastering The Art Of French Cooking.

On August 24, 1987 the Milwaukee Journal ran a story written by Calvin Trillin for his column “Uncivil Liberties” entitled, “French Verbs? You Can Get Along Beautifully  Without ‘Em.”

My two years of high school French seemed to consist mainly of looking through the Kansas City Star for articles mentioning France, cutting them out and gluing them into a scrapbook — an experience that left me with few verbs but a nearly tournament-level skill in gluing.  We didn’t have any Francophones in our family — although anytime my Uncle Oscar used words that caused my mother to say, “Oscar! The children!” he followed them quickly with “Pardon my French.” 

Maybe the Milwaukee Journal was more partial to running stories with pardon my French in it than other newspapers.  In the July 22, 1939 edition carried the column written by Louella O. Parsons, Motion Picture Editor for the International News Service. Among the tidbits of news was this:

The exhibitors from Maine to California who have been raising heck (pardon my French) with MGM because Greer Garson hasn’t started a picture since her success in “Mr. Chips” will be glad to know that she faces the camera on Monday, with Robert Taylor as her co-star and Lew Ayres importantly featured.  The paying customers will see the captivating lady with the red hair in “Remember” authored and directed by Normal McLeod, with Milton Bren producing.

Back on August 2, 1908 the New York Times ran a story entitled, “Cock Of The Walk” that used a variation of the expression pardon my French.  In the story, the following exchange happens between Bridget the cook and the master of the house.

“I haven’t accused you of anything of the sort.  All I want to know is what became of that bottle, Bridget!”

“Then Oi’ll tell ye about that bottle, and then, mind ye, Oi’ll leave.  Last night Oi had company in the kitchen.  ‘Twas the cook and another iv the serants from the Van Bullion house across the street.  Oi had been telling them how much leeway Oi had in this house, even to being considered as one above the pale iv servants in any mansion, not excludin’ the White House.  There was a sneer on the face iv the Van Bullion cook, Sir, that Oi was tempted to efface wid a smash iv me fist; but, as is becoming a cook iv yours, Sir, Oi held my dignity and resolved to rub it in.  Excuse my French, Sir!”

However, the expression seems to have first appeared in the March 1895 edition of Harper’s Magazine in a story by Francis Hopkinson Smith entitled, “A Waterlogged Town.”  The story read in part:

“Do not the palaces interest you?” I asked inquiringly, in my effort to broaden his views.

“Palaces be durned!  Excuse my French.  Palaces!  A lot of cave-in old rookeries; with everybody living on the second floor because the first one’s so damp ye’d get your die-and-never-get-over-it if you’d lived in the basement, and the top floors so leaky that you go to bed under an umbrella; and they all braced up with iron clamps to keep ’em from falling into the canal, and not a square inch on any one of ’em clean enough to dry a shirt on!  What kind of holes are they for decent — Now see here, “haying his hand confidingly on my shoulder, “just answer me one question — you seem like a level-headed young man, and ought to give it to me straight.  Been here all summer, ain’t you?”

Now even though Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the expression, that it would be used so easily in Harper’s Magazine in 1895 suggests that it was a common expression for the era and as such it is not unreasonable to place it at a generation or more prior to this, dating it to least 1875.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: