Bonjour! Today we're discussing some historical and linguistic connections between French and English, covering topics as varied as the Bastille, frogs’ legs, and roast beef. We'll also learn why we say "pardon my French," but in order to do that, we first need to take a closer look at the historic connection between England and France.
What is a bastille, you may ask? For those who don’t know much French or who haven’t studied European history lately, here’s a mini-lesson. “Bastille” is the French word for “fortress” or “castle.”  It’s also the name of the famous building that revolutionaries stormed on July 14, 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution. The Bastille was built in the 1300s to protect Paris from the English. Its 100-foot walls later held political prisoners, including the French writer Voltaire.
The French celebrate their national holiday on July 14. In the United States, it is called Bastille Day. In France, it is not. In France, July 14 is known by what translates as “The National French holiday,” and the French wish each other “Happy National Holiday,” not “Happy Bastille Day.” On every Bastille Day since 1880, there has been a military parade in Paris.
France vs. England
The French and English haven’t always been allies, as they are today, and the Bastille was originally built to protect the French from the English. The two countries have had a long history of conflict—in fact, about 900 years of conflict! In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy, France, invaded England and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. Since this pivotal moment, the French and English languages have been intertwined.
One reason English has so many synonyms is that it absorbed thousands of words from French.
The Norman Conquest of England greatly affected the English language. About 10,000 or so French words came into English after the Conquest, and about three-quarters of them are still in use today. In fact, English has many pairs of words—one from Old English and the other from French— that mean about the same thing. One example is “law” and “order.” “Law” comes from an Old English word in use before the year 1000; it came to English from Old Norse. “Order” has later origins, coming to Middle English via Old French and Latin between 1175 and 1225. Another example is “forgive” and “pardon.” “Forgive” was in use before the year 900 and comes from Middle and Old English. “Pardon” is from Old French and has been used in English since the middle of the 15th century. Finally, consider “ask” and “inquire.” “Inquire” comes from Old French, and “ask” comes from Old English.
Experts today sometimes say you can improve your writing—or at least make it more clear and straightforward—by favoring words with an Old English origin, but long ago in many cases, using a word with a French origin was thought to be more refined than using a similar word with an English origin.
Pardon My French
This brings us to the common expression “Pardon my French” or “Excuse my French.” Today, it’s a warning that you are going to swear or use obscene language, and it has been used to mean this since about 1895. But it was originally used literally: When someone used a French word instead of an English word, the speaker might apologize for using a word the listener wouldn’t understand. In the 19th century, some people in England did use a fancier French word rather than the English equivalent. Here’s an example from an article in “The New-England Magazine” published in 1833. A man who seems to be bragging about his dating life says this:
I need not expatiate on my gift at pleasing the feminine gender;—“Verbum sat,” (excuse my French!) I say nothing; you know my modesty. (“Verbum sat” means “the word is sufficient.”)
And here’s another example from 1847, again for some reason, talking about dating, this time from the book “Two Lives: Or, To Seem and To Be”:
The American ladies are charming, very charming, mais un per prudes. Pardon my French: I could not be so bold to say it in English. (“Mais un peu prudes” means “a little bit prudish.”)
Because of the history of strife between France and England, “Pardon my French” quickly came to be a little bit of a dig against the French.
People originally said, "Pardon my French," when they used a French word or phrase.
Frog and Rosbif
The rivalry between England and France has persisted linguistically speaking, even though politically the countries are now allies. There is a certain word the English use to disparage the French, and one the French use to disparage the English. Can you guess what these words are? Think about the food that comes to mind when you consider each nation.
Have you ever heard an English speaker refer to a French person as a “frog”? It’s not nice; don’t do it. This pejorative word has been in use since the 1300s but originally referred to the Jesuits, whose enemies compared them to unclean animals that lie in the mud, and the Dutch, who were called “froglanders," which the Oxford English Dictionary speculates may be because the Netherlands are marshy and therefore hospitable to frogs.
Since about 1800, the word has been used to refer to the French. Some sources speculate that this association of frogs with the French goes back to the original French heraldry symbol, which contained three frogs, but since the ruler Clovis changed the frogs to lilies in the 6th century, creating the fleur-de-lis, it seems unlikely that this is the origin of the 1800s insult. Other sources suggest that the term arose from the French taste for eating frogs’ legs. It’s not a bad dish, actually; you should try it sometime!
On the other side of the coin, have you heard a French speaker refer to an English person as a “rosbif”? This, as you might have guessed, is a simpler story: It means roast beef, a dish the English are known to eat. Again, you should try it; it is yummy! Both words have been used as insults since the early 19th century.
Instead of insulting each other, let’s try to be friends! A business in France is trying to mend fences or at least make everyone happy. It’s a restaurant and brewery that serves a mixture of French and English food. Can you guess the name? Très bien if you guessed Frog and Rosbif, which has branches in Paris, Bordeaux, and Toulouse.
So, this Bastille Day, say, “Merci” to the French, who have donated so many useful words to English.
1. “Bastille.” The Collins Robert French Dictionary, Second Edition. Collins Publishers, 1987, p. 66.
That segment was written by Bonnie Mills, author of "The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier" who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.