It startled me.
A Black man, an entertainer, said it in a news interview while describing what the cops did to him. They racially profiled him. They kneed him in the neck. They arrested him. And they let him go. Sorry, but he had fit the description. He was lucky, sort of. He didn’t die like George Floyd did, but he had been down that road. He felt the fear.
Yes, he had good reason to utter profanities.
But preceded by “Pardon my French”?
He lost me there, though I had empathized with him from the outset.
But what did the French language have to do with it?
It’s not something I would say to anyone in my homeland Quebec, where the majority are French and the official language is French.
The phrase made me uneasy. I was unsure about it. You don’t hear it in these parts. Could it be acceptable?
Some brief research was needed.
Wikipedia was the first stop:
” “Pardon my French” or “Excuse my French” is a common English language phrase ostensibly disguising profanity as words from the French language. … Although the phrase is often used without any explicit or implicit intention of insulting the French people or language, it can nevertheless be perceived as offensive and belittling by Francophone speakers. However, most users of the term intend no such belittlement, but rather a light-hearted way of apologizing on-the-fly for having used a somewhat profane comment.”
I get that. There was no belittlement of Francophones intended in aforementioned interview, I was quite sure of that. But why not just say, “Excuse my use of profanity.”
The top definition in the Urban Dictionary has this: “It in fact originates from the constant warfare between England and France many years ago, at that time “French” was associated with indecent things and activies (Swearing, kissing etc).”
And from Cambridge Dictionary, in a nutshell: “… said when you are pretending to be sorry for using a word that may be considered offensive: Pardon my French, but that’s a damned shame!”
But I didn’t find any complaints. No news articles calling it out. No outcries.
Au contraire, I think some French people may even see it as a term of certain endearment. Oui, nobody swears like the French, eh? Why, there’s even a Pardon My French online boutique selling men’s and women’s hip clothes, shoes and other merch, with delivery in France and worldwide.
The phrase has been used in popular culture for decades. The picture accompanying this article is a movie poster from 1921. Says Wikipedia: “Pardon My French is a lost 1921 American silent comedy film produced by Messmore Kendall and distributed by Goldwyn Pictures. It was directed by Sidney Olcott with Vivian Martin in the leading role.”
Has the jury reached a verdict?
Well, not really. Yes, it has been socially acceptable all this time, no doubt. But I’m thinking it is not a phrase many would use in conversation with a French person. So why use it with non-francophones?
It smacks of antiquated British arrogance and imperialism that took great joy in belittling the people of France. And that’s presumably when it was coined, along with other less-than-flattering expressions.
I often weep silently for the Quebec French nation lost to Britain, and for those in Quebec who dream of sovereignty now. But that’s another story, which you may have read here before.
It brings to mind a song from that post, though, and these words.
“I’m gonna dress you up like the Mother Queen
Fuck you up like you’ve never seen.”
– Serge Fiori, from Crampe au cerveau