Pardon my French

IMG_1110I have a weakness for foul language. To me, a conversation without an expletive or two is like food without salt and pepper. It falls a little flat.

I try to keep my language polite in front of small children, during job interviews and in meetings. But the rest of the time, I consider myself something of a connaisseur in the creative art of cursing. I’ll spare you the real-life examples: suffice it to say that my vocabulary is liberally spiced.

As soon as I’d achieved a basic level of fluency in French, I tried to go colloquial by slipping a few choice words of slang into my vocabulary. Nothing shocking or crude, I just wanted to be me and tell it like it is in the local lingo.

This is dangerous ground for a foreigner. It’s not that the French don’t swear. They do it well. But there is a time and place. And they don’t expect you, as a non-native speaker and a stranger who has come to their country to learn the language and culture, to use slang – even less to utter gros mots.

‘Les gros mots’* are swear words. Why these words are called ‘big’ rather than ‘bad’ in French remains a mystery. They are generally not big at all but rather short: merde, putain, con.

My early forays into foul French earned me a few raised eyebrows and the odd moment of shocked silence. But what really got me into trouble was when I tried to excuse my bad language by jokingly saying, “Pardon my French!”

“Pardon my – what?” asked my interlocutor, a friend of the family who enjoyed dusting off his conversational English whenever we met. He seemed affronted. I explained that we often used this expression in English to excuse foul language.

This gave him pause.  “So, for you, French is equated with bad words?”

“No, not really,” I rushed to explain.  “It’s supposed to be funny – as if the swear words were not really English.”  I could see he wasn’t getting it.  He shook his head in disbelief.

“I’ve heard the English insult the French in many ways before but this is – le comble.”  As I wasn’t sure what the comble** was I just shrugged, repeating once again that it wasn’t meant to be insulting – just a joke.

“So we are a joke. I am not sure that most French people would find that funny,” he said, still shaking his head somewhat sadly.

I had inadvertently discovered that the French, for all their arrogance, can be wounded by the slings and arrows of ignoble humour. Their pride can take a lot of blows but not that of being the butt of a joke. Especially when told by the English.

*Gros mots is a familiar expression that comes from the proper word ‘grossièreté’ meaning crude or ignorant.

**C’est le comble = That beats all!


  1. BigLizzy · June 5, 2013

    Bonjour! I laughed out loud at this post, mon amie. “Pardon my French!” LOL! Rolling on the floor laughing!! I’m enjoying your blog so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you for chronicling your life in France. Through your words, I feel like I’ve been there and that is a huge gift. 🙂

  2. MELewis · June 6, 2013

    So glad you enjoyed it! It’s a pleasure to share my bloopers and blunders in French life with someone who has such a fondness for France. And I’m sure you will gather a few funny stories of your own when you make the trip to our fair country. A bientôt!

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