"I stand corrected"

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From Elizabeth Dreyer:

Ah!  Autant pour moi, as the French say for "I stand corrected": As much for me.  So much for me?  … I've just looked up the origin of this expression and in fact it's rather fascinating.  People write "autant pour moi" but that is a corruption, a miswriting of "au temps pour moi".  "Au temps!" is the order given in the military when one has to repeat a movement from the beginning because of an error.  I have absolutely never seen "au temps pour moi" in print and have seen "autant pour moi" many times.

Being apologetic is a tricky business.  How to admit you're wrong and when to admit it — not easy, especially if you have an ego.

Here's what "Aussie in France" has to say about it:

"Friday’s French – autant pour moi – au temps pour moi", by Rosemary Kneipp (May 16, 2013):

It took me a while to actually understand what this expression is all about. Autant usually means “as much as” or “as many as”, such as prenez autant que vous voulez – take as much as you want. Autant pour moi may be short for C’est autant pour moi with the general idea being “so much for me”.

I have since discovered a more plausible explanation. It seems that the real expression is au temps pour moi, of military origin where temps is the precise moment in time at which certain movements are made and distinguished by a pause when using a weapon. It’s the same idea as “marching in time” or “clapping in time”. Saying au temps pour moi is like admitting you weren’t in time.

But the origin remains a controversy and today, autant pour moi is found at least as often as au temps pour moi. The Collins-Robert bilingual dictionary gives “It’s my mistake” as a translation, which is pretty close to the idea being conveyed.

However, the real meaning is a lot subtler than that, as I have come to realise over the years. It is actually a male substitute for an apology about being wrong.

I don’t know about other Anglophone countries, but Australia is a very apologetic nation. People are always saying they’re sorry about something, even when it’s not their fault.

It’s not very French though. Je suis désolé(e) exists of course, and is used, when a woman, in particular, wants to express commissation e.g. je suis désolée d’avoir appris que vous avez été cambriolée – I’m sorry to learn you have been burgled.

Very often, only the past participle is used, without the verb, and the meaning is much more cursory, e.g. désolé d’être en retard – sorry I’m late.

More often than not, it is used to convey exactly the opposite, Je suis désolé mais je n’irai pas – I’m sorry but I’m not going, which is also a perfectly acceptable English usage as well, the difference being that it is used more often in French.

If you want to get a taste of what it's like to be sorry for being sorry, don't miss these two posts:

"Sumimasen!" (12/18/13)

"Sorry!" (12/16/18)

In China, as explained in the second post, it's better that you never do anything for which you might feel sorry or, what is much worse, say that you are sorry.  In Mandarin, that comes out as "duìbùqǐ 對不起" or "duìbùzhù 對不住", both of which mean roughly "I cannot stand to face you", or "bàoqiàn 抱歉" ("embrace regret / sorrow / guilt / deficiency / shame / apology").

[h.t. June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Laura Morland said,

    October 3, 2020 @ 3:14 pm

    As an American living in Paris (now full-time, thanks to Covid-19), I loved this post! I, too, was confused the first time a person wrote an email saying "autant pour moi," and I had to look it up. And since that time, I, too, have never seen "au temps pour moi" in writing. I'd wager — it's just a wild guess — that 90% of fairly well-educated native French speakers believe that "autant pour moi" is correct.

    But what I love most about this guest post is the comment on the relationship of the French to the apology. It must be something in the educational system as well as their culture, because they truly don't like to be wrong! If they are ever caught out on a factual error, they'll typically say, "Merci pour la précision." (Not "correction.")

    I decided a long time ago that "Being French means never having to say you're sorry."

    [Post scriptum: despite that quirky feature in the French character, I love it here. And whenever I admit to an error of my own — which I do readily, and as a foreigner I'm prone to mistakes — they seem to find it endearing. Further, they almost uniformly seem astonished when I tell them that I love to have my (spoken or written) French corrected.]

  2. David C. said,

    October 3, 2020 @ 9:10 pm

    It must be something in the educational system as well as their culture, because they truly don't like to be wrong!

    This is my experience as well. I actually did not hear "désolé" all that much in conversation while in France. "Pardon" is more common, which is used after an offence has been committed. Several times I have experienced shoving people in crowds while yelling "Pardon!" loudly after the said shoving occurred, more as a "get out of my way" for those ahead. This is attested to by another commenter in the "Sorry!" post.

    I understand why Anglo-American societies are reluctant to apologize, because of saying sorry is often an admission of guilt, which has legal repercussions in more serious circumstances.

    Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau have a fantastic book called The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, which explores the French phenomenon at depth.

    Wiktionary has alternative etymology for "autant pour moi", as a reduction of "C’est autant d’erreur que l’on peut mettre à mon actif.", which to my ears resembles "All errors are my own."


  3. Greg said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 6:52 am

    Being British I naturally fancy myself an expert of all kinds of saying sorry, particularly those that are really saying that I'm sorry to have to be talking to someone at all ("I'm sorry you feel that way" said with the right tone of voice sounds much more sincere than it actually is.) I found the article fascinating enough to click through and read all of it, but one thing I still don't understand — perhaps some French-speakers here might be able to explain?

    Why is it considered a *male* substitute for being wrong? I found nothing in the article that elaborated on this, although there's the comment about "desolée" being perhaps more feminine. I am puzzled.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 9:28 am

    I wouldn't consider "I'm sorry to hear you've been burgled" to be an apology. It's just using the more fundamental meaning of "sorry", feeling sorrow.

  5. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 10:21 am

    David C. says "Anglo-American societies are reluctant to apologize", but Canada is a notable exception to this trend. As the joke says, how do you know if someone's Canadian? If you step on their toe and *they* apologize.

    But I guess on the legal point, it looks like the Canadian government has addressed this vulnerability:


  6. Kristian said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 10:30 am

    Admitting an error, expressing sorrow, and apologizing are all different things, although they can coexist. Lots of errors don't need to be regretted or apologized for.

    If I make a stupid mistake, like saying "Charles Dickens wrote Pride and Prejudice" (let's assume I actually believe that), and someone corrects me, it can be very difficult to admit I am wrong, but there isn't any reason to say sorry. Some people might say "oh, I'm sorry" in such a case, but that could be construed as an attempt to regain face, since it allows them to pretend the mistake was accidental. Also many people find it harder to admit to ignorance than to inconveniencing others.

    The word "sorry" is ambiguous, since it can give the hearer the impression that the speaker is asking for forgiveness, but the speaker might just be expressing regret that the other person is making a big fuss.

  7. Cervantes said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 11:08 am

    Apology in Spanish also seems odd. For "I'm sorry," people usually say "Lo siento," which literally means "I feel (for) it," but that what you are feeling is regret is generally assumed. Disculpar means to excuse or forgive, but when used reflexively it has essentially the opposite meaning, i.e. to apologize or accept responsibility. "Te disculpo" means I excuse you, but "Me disculpo" means I apologize. "Disculpame" means "forgive me." There's something about this that seems to drive circumlocution, though not evidently in English where the verb is straightforward, although people are often evasive. ("I apologize if anyone was offended.")

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 1:12 pm

    Re the "real" expression, isn't it just as likely (given the etymological debate) that "au temps pour moi" is an eggcorn, i.e. an attempted reanalysis of an opaque word/phrase into something phonologically similar that the reanalyzer thinks would make more sense, regardless of the actual history? Has the Academie come up with a good French word meaning eggcorn in order to avoid leaving the field open to the Anglo-supremacist loandword "le eggcorn"?

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 1:25 pm

    J.W. Brewer: Google Translate has a wonderful translation of "eggcorn": maïs aux œufs.

  10. KevinM said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 4:58 pm

    @ Kenny E: (Canadian) Joni Mitchell went one better: "You brush against a stranger and you both apologize." (Down to You, 1974).

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 5:08 pm

    Joni Mitchell went one better: "You brush against a stranger and you both apologize." (Down to You, 1974).

    Normal in the U.S., in my experience.

  12. AntC said,

    October 4, 2020 @ 7:55 pm

    male substitute for an apology about being wrong.

    I'm with @Greg: I see nothing specifically *male* here. This Kneipp person must have lived outside the Anglophone world for so long she's lost her cultural bearings.

    I don’t know about other Anglophone countries, but Australia is a very apologetic nation. People are always saying they’re sorry about something, even when it’s not their fault.

    This is plain not true. Among Anglophone countries, the ones with the reputation for apologising are Canadians.

    And to the contrary, Australians are known as brash and arrogant. (I live in New Zealand, where folk are almost as apologetic as Canadians.) As someone with a Brit accent visiting Australia, I have received vile racist abuse, with not a skerrick of apology from the abusers nor bystanders. I have seen far worse abuse against non-Anglophone visitors and immigrants to Australia; I have seen just awful embarrassing abuse (including the N- word) against first peoples. (White) Australians have a huge amount to apologise about, and they don't.

    Australia (as a nation) have taken waaay too long a time to apologise to the first peoples; famously Prime Minister John Howard just flat refused, long after nearly all Anglophone members of the Commonwealth had apologised for their colonial history. That is of course not saying that history is "the fault" of the incumbent government. Since this is Language Log: White Australia has in general made no efforts to value and preserve first peoples' languages — which are rich and diverse (except in Tasmania where the whites just shot all the Aboriginals). Contrast NZ has (belatedly) recognised Te Reo Māori as an official language; and we adopt specific words and cultural concepts as tāonga (treasures).

  13. Benjamin Massot said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 2:36 am

    To my French ears, autant pour moi is not specifically male, neither is (je suis) désolé(e) female… Also, they are no equivalent at all.

    I favor the (folk?) etymology with autant, because it's exactly what I understand when I use it: typically, if I have just claimed that somenone is wrong (e.g. "You are wrong to do this/Don't do this, because he'll get angry.") and get corrected for it ("No I'm not wrong, last time he even thanked me for it."), then I turn what I just said back to me with "Autant pour moi, alors.". A part of my claim was that the other speaker was misinformed (or wrong in some way). Exactly this part (autant) should apply to me (pour moi). Another paraphrase: all that has been unpleasant to you through my claim (autant) should now be unpleasant to me (pour moi).

    I feel it's a quite strong apology actually: the speaker clearly takes back their claim, the repproach/the ill-informed advice included, and accept it as legitimate to receive the reproach back in place.

  14. TonyK said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 4:23 am

    @J.W. Brewer: Language Hat agrees with you. Check out languagehat.com/autant-pour-moi/ for his scathing assessment of the "au temps pour moi" interpretation.

  15. JB said,

    October 6, 2020 @ 1:46 am

    The expression could be construed as "male" in the sense that it is a non-apology apology, an expression of casual Gallic disregard while acknowledging a fault that is considered unimportant. The expression came back into vogue somewhat after being repeatedly used in the spoof spy series of films starring Jean Dujardin, OSS117. E.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6hJW2xUFCc

  16. champacs said,

    October 7, 2020 @ 1:12 am

    When Rosemary Kneipp says "I don’t know about other Anglophone countries, but Australia is a very apologetic nation" she's simply comparing Australia to France, where people apologise less, or phrase it differently.
    It's all relative, it just depends on your cultural point of view.
    So while you might not think that people in Australia apologise a lot, they do compared to France.

  17. Bathrobe said,

    October 10, 2020 @ 5:10 am

    As AntC pointed out, a lot of Australians (not all, by any means) do use racially charged vocabulary. The subset of the population that is possibly most liable to use this kind of language is widely referred to as Bogans, which are the Australian version of rednecks. ("Bogan" is, of course, another potential term of abuse.)

    As someone with a Brit accent visiting Australia, I have received vile racist abuse, with not a skerrick of apology from the abusers nor bystanders.

    AntC is referring to the word "Pom". While it isn't necessarily used in a positive way, it is on the same level as "Yank". One would be hard put to describe it as "vile racist abuse". Firstly it is not "racist" (it refers to nationalities, not races), and secondly, while certainly it isn't always used in a friendly way it can also be used in a neutral way and doesn't fall into the category of "vile abuse".

    I have seen just awful embarrassing abuse (including the N- word) against first peoples.

    The word "first peoples" isn't generally used in Australia. I think the current term of choice is indigenous Australians. As for the N-word, I don't think I've heard it used that often. Australia has its own term of abuse for the indigenous people, the B-word (I don't want to repeat it here — you don't want to know it), which is every bit as vile as the N-word.

    When I was growing up in Australia I had a feeling of helplessness against this kind of racist language because it was a kind of "commonsense" that only intellectuals or outsiders would raise objections to. If you wanted to fit in you flinched and accepted it. I once mentioned to a friend in Sydney that the B-word was regarded as "acceptable" in many circles in Australia, to which he replied that it had NEVER been acceptable. Well, he didn't grow up where I did, a place where you did get to hear such words, although not necessarily on an everyday basis.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    October 10, 2020 @ 7:39 am

    Without wishing to cause Bathrobe to spell out the word, may I ask whether it starts "Black" and ends with an "a" or a "w" ? If so, it was my understanding that this was not particularly offensive, and certainly less objectionable than "Abo", for example. But then I am not an Australian, and although I did work there briefly, my impressions may well be completely mistaken.

    If the word is the one of which I am thinking, then two most recent usages reported by the OED are definitely positive :

    1998 P. Gwynne Deadly Unna? xxxiv. 218 Hey, you whitefella. Piss off. This here's black****a's business, unna.
    2002 R. Taylor Unearthed 270 When I asked Louise how Tiger expressed his pride, she replied, ‘He’d say..“I'm an Aborigine,”..“I'm a black man,” or “I'm a black****a.”’

    The other nine quotations are a mixture of pejorative, neutral and positive. I'm also reasonably certain that the word was used in Whistle down the wind, the 1960s film starring Hayley Mills, but with what connotations I no longer remember.

  19. Bathrobe said,

    October 10, 2020 @ 7:46 am

    It's a word that people are better off not learning. But since I've stupidly ended up piquing people's curiosity it's on Wiktionary here: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/boong

    Don't use it.

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