Why Do We Say “Pardon My French” When We Curse?

(Last Updated On: October 3, 2019)
Why Do We Say “Pardon My French” When We Curse?

You’ve had a long day at work, and just as you’re about to leave, you realize your code didn’t work, and you have to redo everything the next day. To your frustration, you curse out loud only to realize your coworkers are still around and raising judgmental looks. Flustered, you quickly mutter, “Pardon my French…”

If you’ve ever wondered why we say “Pardon my French” when we curse, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll define the term and then investigate how and where this phrase came about.

Learn about another saying: Why Do We Say We’re “Going Cold Turkey”?

“Pardon My French” Defined

The phrase “Pardon my French” or “Excuse my French” is used after cursing, as a feeble attempt to disguise it as being a French word. It is often used to excuse yourself when there is someone visibly offended by your use of profanity. It can also be used right before you curse, as a warning to those who are part of the conversation.

While it is often used to apologize on the fly, one should be mindful when using this phrase — it can be offensive to French people as it is sometimes perceived as a phrase of belittlement, even if the user didn’t have that intention at all.

Examples:

Using the phrase after cursing:
“OH __ ! (Pardon my French!) I spilled my pot of soup”

Using the phrase as a preface to cursing:
“(Pardon my French) but Pizza is __ amazing!”

Using the phrase to apologize:
“Watch your language in front of the kids!”
“Oops, pardon my French…”

Why Do We Say “Pardon My French” When We Curse?

Use of “Pardon my French” seems to appear sometime after the 1800s. Linguists believe that the term was initially used literally, as it was common for English speakers to insert French phrases into the conversation to demonstrate their culture, refinement or social class. The speaker would then apologize to the listener for using a word they didn’t understand.

A prominent example of this phrase’s usage can be seen in the 18th- and 19th-century British fashion publication, The Lady’s Magazine, in 1830: 

“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.”

In this case, the speaker literally used the French phrase “en bon-point” which means “plumpness” or the state of being well-nourished.

More recently, the phrase entered popular culture through use on broadcast television. It’s used to intensify the effect of regular, less offensive words without violating the censorship and rating guidelines.


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