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No need for a pardon if you're actually speaking French

We try to keep our language pretty clean here at That’s What They Say, but sometimes things just slip out.

Like when we’re explaining the difference between “they’re”, “their,” and “there” for what feels like the millionth time.

Or when we see "for all intensive purposes" in print, and the writer isn't trying to be ironic.

Sometimes it happens when we stub a toe and it really, really hurts.

In any case, for those of us guilty of occasionally uttering words that would make a sailor blush, the phrase “pardon my French” is a go-to apology.

It didn’t start out that way.

The phrase started to appear in the mid-19th century. People used it if they said something in French and were concerned the person they were speaking to didn’t understand.

So how does the phrase end up as an apology for taboo language? Most of the bleep-worthy words you hear on Entourage aren’t even French but Germanic.

It all goes back to long-standing rivalries between French speakers and English speakers.

From the 17th century on, “French” is used to refer to things considered outrageous or explicit. Things like French kissing, French novels and a French leave.

If you think that rivalry died out with breeches and tri-corner hats, think again. Care for some Freedom Fries?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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