Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Take French Leave

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 12, 2011

To take French leave means that someone has left a gathering without asking or announce he or she is leaving. The English and Portuguese attribute this bad behaviour to the French while the Russian, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, and French have an expression that blames it on English while the Dutch and Finnish lay blame on thieves.  What is particularly interesting with this expression is the finger-pointing that is associated with it.

That being said, until at least World War II, the British Army used the euphemism to take French leave when referring to a soldier deserting his company.  According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, to take French leave comes from an 18th century custom in France where guests left a reception without thanking the host or hostess for having invited them.  The dictionary states that the first known use of this phrase to take French leave dates back to 1771.

On July 23, 1942 the Lawrence Journal World newspaper published Harry Grayson‘s column “The Scoreboard.”  The article read in part:

Ed Barrow and Joy McCarthy don’t care for ball players who take French leave, especially when an injury has left the outfit with no one else for the position.  Rosar’s offense was particularly flagrant inasmuch as he was receiving and swinging for the everwilling Bill Dickey, out with a torn ligament in his shoulder.

In 1920, Edith Wharton published a book entitled “The Age Of Innocence” which had this passage in Book I, Chapter XVII:

“Look at him — in such hot haste to get married that he took French leave and rushed down to implore the silly girl on his knees!  That’s something like a lover — that’s the way handsome Bob Spicer carried off my poor mother; and then got tired of her before I was weaned –though they only had to wait eight months for me! But there — you’re not a Spicer, young man; luckily for you and for May. It’s only my poor Ellen that has kept any of their wicked blood; the rest of them are all model Mingotts,” cried the old lady scornfully.

In the Robert Louis Stevenson book “Treasure Island” published on May 23, 1883 after having been published in a children’s magazine in 1881 and 1882 as a serial story,  the expression to take French leave is found in Part V, Chapter 22 entitled, “My Sea Adventure.”

As for the scheme I had in my head, it was not a bad one in itself. I was to go down the sandy spit that divides the anchorage on the east from the open sea, find the white rock I had observed last evening, and ascertain whether it was there or not that Ben Gunn had hidden his boat, a thing quite worth doing, as I still believe. But as I was certain I should not be allowed to leave the enclosure, my only plan was to take French leave and slip out when nobody was watching, and that was so bad a way of doing it as made the thing itself wrong. But I was only a boy, and I had made my mind up.

The Colonist newspaper in New Zealand published the column “Spirit Of The Press” on December 21, 1858 with the following interesting bit of information about taking French leave.

We read that “the Bombay Geographical Society announce in their proceedings, that they have received a specimen of the Walking leaf from Java.”  A person who walks off is said to take French leave.  You may be sure that this tree is originally in France, and not liking a soil that was subject to so many political up-heavings, it took French leave, and walked off.  Hence, probably the origin of that term; or perhaps, the phrase of “cutting one’s stick” may be owing to the habits of this Walking-leaf.  It “cuts its stick” and walks away.  We think we have very cleverly explained two very vulgar idioms, the exact meaning of which has never till now been properly accounted for.  By-the-by, the Birnam Wood that walked into Macbeth, must have been a perambulating forest of these Walking-leaves.

Eliza Southgate Bowne was known for the many letters she wrote in her lifetime.  They were compiled by Clarence Cook and published in a book in 1887 entitled, “A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago.”  In a letter dated Sunday, May 25, 1806 to Miss Miranda Southgate, Eliza Southgate Bowne had written in part:

Now for news, which I suppose you are very anxious to hear.  Iin the first place — Miss Laurelia Dashaway is married to Mr. Hawkes.  On Saturday morning, 8 o’clock, Trinity Church was opened on purpose for the occasion; something singular, as it would not be like Miss Laurelia.  But what do you think — Mr. Grellet has taken French leave of New York — sailed for France about a fortnight ago, without anybody’s knowing their intention till they were gone.  There are many conjectures upon the occasion not very favorable to the state of their finances.  “Tis said his friends were very averse to her going with him.  If she had not, I suspect she might have sympathized with Madame Jerome Buonoparte and many other poor Madames that have founded their hopes on the fidelity of a Frenchman.

In the book “Letters from America” which is a compilation of the letters written by William Eddis.  In a letter to his wife written at Annapolis on September 26, 1775, William Eddis wrote in part:

Mr. L, who had actually embarked for England, with full permission from the ruling powers, has been obliged to relinquish his intention, and return on shore, some clamours having been excited by the populace to his prejudice; and it being though necessary he should remain to vindicate his conduct.  Many of our friends have found it expedient to take French leave.  I trust you will speedily meet them in perfect safety.

However even earlier than this, there are written discussion in the late 1760s on the meaning of the phrase and its origins.  Since a guest is not bound by etiquette to seek leave from the party’s host or hostess, it is proper protocol to seek out the host or hostess when one is about to leave.  It was determined that the phrase implies that the person who uses it or of whom it is used has done something that, strictly speaking, should not have done or for which the person should be ashamed.

Since the Merriam-Webster dictionary attributes the first use of the expression to take French leave to 1771, it appears the expression was alive and well in the years leading up to 1771.  Idiomation guesses that the earliest use may have been sometime in the 1760s.

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