Q From Jan Rudge: Where does the phrase pardon my French or excuse my French come from? Some people use it to apologise for using a swearword.
A Yes, that’s its present-day meaning, usually accompanying some blunt or offensive language. The speaker tries to divert criticism from the objectionable term by pretending that it’s innocuous French.
Well, look who is laughing now. And if you’ll excuse my French, Thierry, go stick your va va voom where it hurts.
Charleston Daily Mail, 27 Aug. 2012.
Gov’mint’s run by a buncha goddamn morons. Pardon my French.
The Good Neighbour, by William Kowalski, 2004.
However, in recent times we have become so inured to hearing rough language that the annotation is now often applied humorously or coyly to terms that would need euphemising only for the supremely squeamish:
The bar menu at Muse helps — their cocktails aren’t for sissies (pardon my French) — they might look feminine to a hard core beer drinker, but I really love the way they’ve kept the sweetness.
Daily News & Analysis, 22 Apr. 2012.
The phrase began to appear around the first third of the nineteenth century, the excuse version then being more common. This is a typical early example:
Dreadful good brandy o’ yourn. Ha! ha! ha! My respects. Excuse my French.
Marian Rooke, by Henry Sedley, 1865. We must presume that dreadful was stronger language then.
The background is the centuries-old adversarial relationship between the English and the French, which had culminated in the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the century. French had long appeared as one element in deprecatory formations, often with implications of sexual adventurousness or explicitness — French pox (syphilis), French letter (condom), and French novel and French print (pornographic material) — together with French leave (going somewhere without asking permission). There is a parallel with the Dutch, who had been maritime competitors of the English in the seventeenth century and whose name appears in such formations as Dutch uncle and Dutch comfort.
The compliment has been returned: in France, French leave is filer à l’anglaise, to flee in an English way, a French letter is a capote anglaise, an English cap, and the French pox has been called la maladie anglaise. Then there’s le malaise anglais and le vice anglais, which seem to have been used for everything the French have from time to time found distasteful about the English: rickets, economic incompetence, football hooliganism, depression, food, flagellation and homosexuality.
The earliest examples, however, are attached to actual French words and phrases. Most seem to have been genuine apologies for using a French term that the listener might not have understood:
Bless me, how fat you are grown! — absolutely as round as a ball: — you will soon be as embonpoint (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.
The Twelve Nights, by Baron Karl von Miltie, 1831.
Teddy and Lord Radstock’s son, Waldegrave, boarded the French commodore, and carried him l’épée à la main; — excuse my French.
Memoirs and Letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, 1833.