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vendredi 27 août 2010

Pardon my French

Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie. Une version française sera publiée prochainement.

Perhaps the best indication of improved relations between France and the U.S.A. /U.K. is the fact that certain words and expressions in English with a hint of Francophobia, as well as some French words and sayings of an Anglophobic nature, have largely fallen into disuse The expression Pardon my French was once a popular way of saying “excuse my bad language.” In a 1986 American movie entitled Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the protagonists says about the other: “Pardon my French, but he is so tight that if you were to shove a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you'd have a diamond."

Other expressions traditionally used in English that contained an anti-French bias were French letter (condom), French disease (genital herpes), and French postcards (pornographic material). To take French leave was traditionally referred to the practice of leaving a gathering without the courtesy of informing the host or hostess. It has also been used to signify the act of absconding from military service, known in English as A.W.O.L. (“absence without leave”).

French, for its part, has its own glossary of words that are hardly complimentary to Anglo-Saxons

capote anglaise (condom) 

l’education anglaise (spanking as a sexual act) 

 filer ȧ l’anglaise (A.W.O.L.) 

Although the Hundred Years War ended more than five centuries ago, and the Entente Cordiale supposedly brought to an end a millennium of conflicts between the two nations, rivalry and tensions often simmer below the surface, and they express themselves in periods of stress. Even when Britain and France were firm allies in the Second World War, a tension between their leaders, Churchill and de Gaulle, was clearly visible. De Gaulle said: “When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. So we were often angry at each other.” Churchill said: “Of all the crosses I have to bear, the heaviest is the Cross of Lorraine.”

That rivalry is sometimes also present between the French and English languages. President Sarkozy has frequently defended the status of the French language and has urged representatives of France to avoid using English. (This is understandable when one remembers that French was the lingua franca of diplomacy from the 17th to the 19th century and of European literature in the 18th century. About 60 entities in about 30 countries belong to the Francophone community. Over 200 million people world-wide speak French.) A French diplomat who took Sarkozy’s admonition to heart is Gerard Araud, France’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Araud briefly lost his cool when U.N. technicians were unable to supply headsets to allow simultaneous interpretation from French to English at a U.N. press briefing. The ambassador slammed his hands on the table, crossed his arms and tapped his fingers impatiently. Initially, he refused requests from the press to carry on the briefing in English, which he speaks well. "I don't speak in English first. Period," he said in English. “This is simply unacceptable", he continued in French. After it became clear that no headsets were available, Araud regained his composure and agreed to respond to questions from English-speaking reporters in English and from French journalists in French.

While vigorously defending French against the onslaught of English, President Sarkozy sometimes uses some folksy French expressions that would have Victor Hugo turning in his grave.* He was criticized by Le Monde for his choice of words in two public incidents in which he spoke in language that was hardly Molierien. The article is entitled Après "casse-toi pauv' con", le "fais pas le malin, toi".

For "casse-toi pauv' con",, the English equivalent might be “Beat it, asshole”, or “Piss off, you loser” [or “you jerk”] or “butt out, meathead”. For "fais pas le malin, toi"., a rough translation would be “don’t be a smart-arse*” (UK usage) or a “smart ass”** (USA usage), or a “wise-guy”; while the addition of the familiar second-person “toi” adds an extra dose of disrespect.

One humorist at Radio Suisse Romande has produced a video clip containing an impersonation of Presidents de Gaulle, Giscard d’Estang, Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac using similar language.


To end this note with a reminder of the achievements of the French language, it is worth noting that the first Nobel Prize for Literature was won by a Frenchman, Sully Prudhomme in 1901.

Sully Prudhomme

It was only six years later that the Prize was awarded to an Englishman, Rudyard Kipling. The first American to win the Prize was Sinclair Lewis, in 1930.

For a modern example of the merits of the French language, Rap fans might recommend “RAP la beauté de la langue française” –


Perhaps Sarkozy will be campaigning for re-election in 2012. Should he lose those elections, he could create a French version of Don’t Say Goodbye, which he could sing together with Carla as he departs the political stage.



* For another view of Sarkozy’s language, see « Sarkozy mot à mot – La Rhétorique du President »

** A « smart arse/ass» is a vulgar version of the term “Smart Alec”, meaning a person who is a smug know-all, someone “too clever by half”. According to one theory, the expression originated with Alec Hoag, a New York confidence trickster. According to another theory, “Smart Alec” is one of several names, such as Clever Dick, used as catchwords to describe people who are conceited, self-opinionated or ostentatiously and irritatingly knowledgeable.


That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British….by Robert Tombs and Isabelle Tombs

De Gaulle et Churchill by Francois Kersaudy

Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson

3 commentaires:

  1. Nice article - I still often say "Pardon my French" and here it when I am in the US, so I would say that this expression is still not dead.
    But it's true that French / English still and always have had a very "special" relationship.

  2. This is nice informative blog in which you discuss about "Pardon my French" and yes it is very true that English and French has very close to each other. Thanks for sharing this and keep sharing.

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