Excuse my French

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The following article is presented in typical New Yorker cartoon style, but I've retyped the text so that it will take up less space, allowing me to expatiate on the origin and meaning of the key phrase in the title.

Pardon My French: A Guide to French Colloquialisms

A visual "guide" to speaking and thinking like a French person

By Zoé Albert, New Yorker (July 14, 2023)

First the colloquial expression in French, then a literal word for word translation, then the idiomatic meaning:

tomber dans les pommes

"to fall in the apples"

to faint


raconter des salades

"to tell salads"

to lie through one's teeth


se rincer l'oeil

"ro rinse one's eye"

to check someone out


avoir un coeur d'artichaut

"to have an artichoke heart"

to fall in love too easily


péter plus haut que son cul

"to fart higher than one's ass"

to be pretentious


tenir la chandelle

"to hold the candle"

to be a third wheel

cf. Mandarin diàndēngpào 電燈泡 ("light bulb")


se prendre un râteau

"to take a rake"

to get blown off


faire la grasse matinée

"to have a greasy morning"

to sleep in

cf. Mandarin shuìlǎnjiào 睡懶覺 ("to sleep lazily / idly / indolently / languidly / slothfully / sluggishly")

If they still don't make sense with the literal and idiomatic translations, by all means check out the drawings, but sometimes even they don't help.  In that case, you'll just have to accept them on faith.

So where does the English language phrase "pardon my French" come from, and do they say something like that in French?

We say this in English to pass off profanity or (intentional) gaucherie (N.B.) as coming from French.

The phrase is uttered in an attempt to excuse the user of profanity, swearing, or curses in the presence of those offended by it, under the pretense of the words being part of a foreign language.

At least one source suggests that the phrase "derives from a literal usage of the exclamation. In the 19th century, when English people used French expressions in conversation they often apologized for it – presumably because many of their listeners (then as now) wouldn't be familiar with the language". The definition cites an example from The Lady's Magazine, 1830:

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.


And what does "embonpoint" mean?

Embonpoint is most often used to describe people of heavy, but not unattractive, girth. It derives from "en bon point," a phrase from Middle French that means "in good condition." The word was first used as a noun in English in the 17th century. It has subsequently appeared in works by Charlotte Brontë ("a form decidedly inclined to embonpoint" – Shirley), James Fenimore Cooper ("an embonpoint that was just sufficient to distinguish her from most of her companions" – Home as Found), and George Eliot ("as erect in her comely embonpoint as a statue of Ceres" – Adam Bede), among others.


Embonpoint is a fancy way to talk about someone's curvy or plump figure. Embonpoint, pronounced "ahm-bohn-PWAH," is, you guessed it, French in origin. It comes from the phrase "en bon point," which literally means "in good shape."

Embonpoint is generally a compliment, not a criticism — it doesn't mean overweight or fat. You can use embonpoint as a noun or as an adjective: "Your embonpoint friend looks wonderfully curvy in her new dress." Although this word is usually used to describe bodies, the Romantic poet John Keats takes some poetic license when he describes eating a nectarine: “It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy — all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.”


How one gets from "in good point" to "in good shape / condition" and from that to "buxom; voluptuous", etc. is not altogether clear to me, but I suppose that's just the way idioms work, n'est-ce pas?


Selected readings


  1. Chris Barts said,

    July 14, 2023 @ 7:08 pm

    Almost works as a song:

    Some greasy morning when I'm straight.

    I'm gonna take away your rake.

    And then I'll tell you 'bout salads.

    And how I farted high.

    And how I rinsed my eye.

    Some greasy morning when I'm straight.

    (ref: "Some Velvet Morning" by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra)

  2. Y. Henel said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 2:16 am

    There is, adopting the same kind of principle, a French book to teach English colloquialisms the title of which is “Sky my husband!” (« Ciel mon mari ! »). It is still available (1st ed 1995) and seems to have taken some embonpoint in its newest version for there’s even a companion board game.
    Btw, its subtitle is “Guide of the running english”.

    For the positive nuance of embonpoint, I could venture that, for a long time, to be wealthy was to be slightly tubby. There’s a saying which goes: « Quand les gros maigrissent, les maigres meurent. » (When the fat lose weight, the skinny die. (Google Translate).) attributed to Laozi, according to French websites.

    I’m not really convinced by the English version of the Laozi’s gem of wisdom. What would be a natural version?

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 2:59 am

    Compare raconter des salades with I'd take that with a pinch of salt.

  4. Andrew Taylor said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 7:31 am

    "Embonpoint" famously occurs in James Joyce's "Ulysses" in an extract from a trashy erotic novel: "The beautiful woman threw off her sabletrimmed wrap, displaying her queenly shoulders and heaving embonpoint".

  5. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 7:46 am

    It would seem that JJ and I are as one on this — for as long as I have been aware of the word in English, "embonpoint" has meant "bosom" to me.

  6. Robert Coren said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 10:50 am

    @Y. Henel: Is "sky my husband" supposed to be an actual English idiom? As a native speaker of American English, I've never heard it before, and have no idea what it's supposed to mean.

  7. Anthony said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 11:07 am


  8. Philip Anderson said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 11:46 am

    I am always suspicious when the explanation of an idiom interprets it literally, rather than metaphorically.
    However, The Lady example is a literal usage with a French expression, although the jump from that to meaning bad language is a large one, including chronologically – when was the latter usage first recorded.
    But I am not convinced that the lady was actually apologising, rather than emphasising her knowledge of French?

  9. Raul said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 5:07 pm

    Reminds me of a Russian scientist on a conference who is the only person I have ever seen to say, 'excuse my French', and then proceed in somewhat ragged French. That was… unexpected.

  10. Bloix said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 8:14 pm

    More supporting evidence for the origin of "pardon my French:"

    Here's a sentence from an epistolary novel by John Neal, an American novelist and newspaperman, titled Randolph: A Novel, and published in 1823. The letter writer is a woman named Sarah Ramsay and she is writing to a male cousin, Frank. She admits to having read Rousseau, and then asserts, archly, "I do not think I am yet une fille perdue. Pardon my French."

    And this is by a popular novelist, also American, named Maria J. McIntosh, from a novel called Two Lives, or, To Seem and To Be, published in 1847. The speaker is the Marquis de Villeneuve, and the characters are at a ball:
    "The American ladies are charming, very charming, but un peu prudes. Pardon my French; I could not be so bold as to say it in English."

  11. Smith said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 5:03 am

    @Robert Coren
    The expression is a literal translation of a clichéd French idiom used to express alarm at seeing the unexpected arrival of/being discovered by one's husband when (presumably) in flagrante delicto. The book in question takes a number of French idiomatic expressions, translates them literally into English, then provides a correct standard-English equivalent. So no, for the moment at least, "Sky my husband" had not entered the lexicon, but I sense it has a brilliant future…

  12. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 6:59 am

    From a book published in 1987 (Cul de sac – Bum of Bag; Guide Du Français Courant – guide to the Running French) :

    "As any francophone will tell you, translating from the French is a simple, three-step process: 1. Pick a French phrase. 2. Grab a French-English dictionary. 3. Make a complete idiot of yourself."

  13. Kate Bunting said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 9:20 am

    Presumably "Heavens! My husband!"

  14. Rick Robinson said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 9:51 am

    raconter des salades
    "to tell salads"
    to lie through one's teeth

    Interesting that 'salad' has now entered English idiom with a somewhat related connotation: word salad meaning gibberish, but with a strong overtone of bullshit.

  15. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 8:37 pm

    In the 1970s I worked in a college library for a woman nearing retirement who had Edwardian sensibilities. (I once heard her, in complete sincerity and horror, tell a teenager that lifting a large pile of books would damage her female organs.)

    One of the library’s former student employees returned a year or so after graduation to visit. In the interim, he’d gained a lot of weight. Without batting an eyelash, Miss K greeted him effusively and said, “You’re looking very prosperous!”

    In regard to “embonpoint,” I have never associated it with the bosom, even if embonpoint also enhanced a bosom. I take it as a synonym for “plump” as opposed to “ fat.” Or, as Miss K would have it, “prosperous.” And there was a long association in Europe, as far as I know, with plumpness or fat being associated with more affluence, which is in direct contrast to the current U.S. view that associates excess weight with poverty-driven fast-food consumption.

  16. Rachael said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 3:50 am

    I thought the original literal meaning of "pardon my French" was "pardon my poor French pronunciation or grammar" rather than "pardon my using French at all, since you probably don't understand it". The latter is rude; the former seems more in keeping with the affected humility of an era when people said things like "I am your most obedient servant."

  17. Keith said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 9:59 am

    Kate Bunting hits the nail on the head.

    "Ciel, mon mari" ("Heavens! My husband!") is an exclamation uttered by a women who is entertaining her lover when she hears her husband's footsteps as he arrives home much earlier than she anticipated. The line is typically associated with "théâtre de boulevard" and Georges Feydeau.

    The book was written by Jean-Loup Chiflet, whose name is translated on the cover as "John wolf-whistle" if my memory serves (I have a copy sitting on a bookshelf, somewhere).

    The book has also inspired "Ciel! Mon mari est muté en Alsace" ("Heavens! My husband has been transferred to the Alsace office"), a humorous guide to living in the eastern region of France, and also "Ciel! Mon mardi" ("Heavens! my Tuesday"), a weekly TV programme that ran from 1988 to 1992 and briefly resurrected in 2000 and 2001.

  18. Bloix said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 1:24 pm

    PS- the original point of "pardon my French" was NOT to excuse the speaker for using "profanity, swearing, or curses." The point was to talk about sex while pretending not to. Sex, not cursing, or blasphemy, or scatology, or general rudeness. Sex was something the French knew about in a way that made English and American Victorians blush. "Embonpoint" is a perfect example of the kind of bilingual euphemism that permitted a sly reference to boobs. And in the quotes I provided, une fille perdue (a lost girl) is a euphemism for a young woman who's at least suspected of having lost her virginity, and une peu prudes means women who don't flirt.
    Over time, the requirement that actual French be used faded away, and you could add "pardon my French" whenever you said something vaguely risque in English. Later still, even the requirement for sexual content was lost and a man could apologize with "Pardon my French" if he absent-mindedly said "damn" or "son-of-bitch" in what was quaintly referred to as mixed company.
    Nowadays, when every other word on HBO is "fuck" – and the word in-between is usually "scumbag"- it's hard to remember how taboo sex-related words used to be. There were boatloads of work-arounds and "Pardon my French" is just one of the more elaborate examples.

  19. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 19, 2023 @ 11:46 am

    On 'prosperous', compare this entry in the Garzanti Italian/English dictionary: una ragazza prosperosa = a buxom girl.

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