Gary Littman

OWNER OF THE LANGUAGE HOUSE

Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Cheese-eating surrender monkeys... pardon my French

My mother was a most polite woman. Her language was always temperate. She rarely lost her temper. However, if someone or something did make her blood boil (made her very angry) she was likely to exclaim:

Pardon my French, but I think he’s a damn idiot! Or Excuse my French, I think that's the stupidest bloody thing I’ve ever heard for a long time!

It is important to note here that despite apologising for her use of the Gallic language, my mother did not speak French; apart from a few muddied phrases from her school days.

It was clear that the French language (and its people) were closely linked with uncouth (rude), wicked and immoral behaviour. French was the language of dirty dancing. This was reinforced by expressions such as to take French leave (to leave a party without saying good bye or thanking the host) and the French letter (condom) which couldn’t have been much good because there was the French disease (syphilis). French prints were early porn and French kissing was delicious but dangerous and could lead to being Frenchified; catching syphilis.

Only the loose-tongued French could equate being lucky with ‘having an arse full of noodles’ - avoir le cul bordé de nouilles and living in luxury with ‘farting in silk’- péter dans la soie…pardon my French.

When they weren’t fighting, the French and English were trading (mostly insults).

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the French soldier tells the English knights:

I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

Today it’s more of a polite food fight over the Channel (La Manche): The frogs versus les rosbifs.

The insults were all very tit for tat (du tac au tac). The expression to take French leave also exists in French with one small, but important change - filer à l'anglaise. Likewise, a French letter is a capote anglaise and the French disease was also known as la maladie anglaise(The Arabs called it the Christian disease and depending where your invaders came from, it was also known as the Italian, Spanish, German and Polish disease).

The Simpsons cartoon series came up with a new and vivid crudity for the French in 1995: Cheese-eating surrender monkeys… (singes capitulards bouffeurs de fromage), pardon my French, a term used in the US by commentators who love to hate the French.

The term pardon my French can be traced back to educated classes in the 1800s.

Bless me, how fat you have grown! Absolutely as round as a ball: - you will soon be as enbon-point (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major - The Lady's Magazine, 1830

Teddy and Lord Radstock’s son, Waldegrave, boarded the French commodore, and carried his l’épée à la main; — excuse my French - Memoirs and Letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, 1833.

Some linguists claim that pardon my French had little to do with insults. They argue that educated English people liked to drop French expressions into a conversation. They would use the phrase to modestly apologise for these Gallic references, as many of their listeners were unfamiliar with the language.

However this theory is unlikely. In the early 19th century Napoleon was on the warpath and all things French were considered bad taste and should be apologised for in the same breath.

From there it evolved into please forgive me for my rude language as Jim Carey demonstrates so eloquently in the film I Love you Phillip Morris. Please pardon his obscene French.

 

 

 

 


 

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