I spend a lot of time in my car, commuting back and forth to work each day. To pass the time, I’ll listen to audiobooks and podcasts. Recently, when listening to a podcast, an English speaker swore and then quickly said “pardon my French.” By uttering these words, it seemed to soften her language, making it okay to say them during a podcast interview. But, it struck me as a bit odd. And, I questioned why people say “pardon my French” when they swear – in English no less.
Once at home, I quickly did some research to try to find out why we say “pardon my French.” I was intrigued by what I found out.
According to Mental Floss, the phrase was first uttered by people on U.S. soil back in the 1800s. At that time, English speakers incorporated French words and phrases into their conversations as a verbal cue of their esteemed place in society. Knowing that not everyone spoke French, the person who used a French word or two would apologize to the listener for using a phrase they most likely didn’t understand – since those of lesser classes most likely didn’t speak French. So, there was an implied need for someone to excuse their use of a language not known by the more “common” people among them.
Several sources that address this topic refer to a relevant example from an 1830 copy of The Lady Magazine. The publication included this text: “Bless me, how fat you are grown – absolutely as round as a ball – you will soon be as en bon point (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.”
“En bon point” is French for “plump” or “well-nourished” – in the case of its use in The Lady Magazine. Of course, it was said to as a slight to someone’s appearance. Instead of apologizing for the meaning of the comment, the speaker choose to excuse their use of French instead.
As the phrase, “pardon my French,” took hold in the English language it evolved to be a thinly veiled attempt to pass a swear word off as French. But, of course, the speaker – and the listener – know full well that the swear word is just that – despite any attempt to coyly pass it off as a phrase in another language.