Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Pardon my French!

Here is a post for people who are fascinated by language and how it evolves, who wonder where these French words and phrases used in English come from, or for writers who need to put a bit of French into their story or dialogues for authenticity.

The following entries are courtesy of the wonderful 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable', 6th edition, published by William Clowes and Sons Ltd, London in 1962, which I recently came across in a sale of old library books, and which smells so musty I sneeze every time I open it!

Today, we are looking at A to F! All these phrases and words are absolutely not related but taken at random.

Ame damnée, a lost, cursed soul.

Amende honorable. An anglicised French phrase meaning a full and frank apology. In medieval France it was a degrading punishment inflicted on traitors, parricides and sacrilegious persons, who were forced to appear at court with a rope around their neck and stripped to their shirt, and made to beg the pardon of God, the King and the court.
Après moi le déluge. The thing to say when you don't care about what happens after your death. It is recorded that Madame de Pompadour (1721-64) who was King Louis XV's mistress, said 'Après nous le déluge' when remonstrated about the extravagance of the court's expenses.
Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard). Now who was he and why do every French children know and fear him, a little like the bogeyman? Giles de Retz, Marquis de Laval (no relation to me, fortunately!) is supposed to be the original Barbe Bleue. He lived at Machecoul in Brittany and was accused of murdering six of his seven wives. He was ultimately strangled and burned in 1440. Charles Perrault later wrote the tale of Bluebeard in his Comtes du Temps (1697).

Billet doux - a short letter, a message of love. Below is the painting 'Billet Doux' by Boucher 1754.

Bon mot - a clever, witty remark.

Bon Vivant. Someone who indulges in all good of the table. A stronger expression is Bon Viveur, which suggests the pursuit of other pleasures!

Brouhaha (I just love that word). A noisy or excited reaction or response. Late 19th century French word.
Lettres de Cachet (sealed letters). Under the old French regime, they were warrants sealed with the king's seal in which the name of the 'beneficiary' was often left blank. They were very often used to send political opponents to the Bastille or other prisons. They were finally abolished during the French revolution, in 1790.

Cheval de Bataille is someone's favourite subject.

Chevalier d'Industrie is someone who lives by his wits, a swindler, an adventurer. 
In his 1750   ' Letters to his Son, Chesterfield warned against them and urged 'Be cautiously upon your guard against the infinite number of fine-dressed and fine-spoken chevaliers d'industrie and aventuriers which swarm at Paris.' I didn't know that one.

Coup d'essai is a trial piece, a practice.
Coup de grâce is the finishing stroke, the stroke or mercy. When a criminal was tortured by the wheel or otherwise, the executioner gave him the 'coup de grâce' to put him out of his misery.

Coup de pied de l'âne. Literally, a kick from the ass's hoof, and figuratively a blow given to a vanquished or fallen man, a cowardly blow, or an insult given to someone who is in no position to retaliate. It is an allusion to 'The Sick Lion' Aesop, which goes like this:
A Lion had come to the end of his days and lay sick unto death at the mouth of his cave, gasping for breath. The animals, his subjects, came round him and drew nearer as he grew more and more helpless. When they saw him on the point of death they thought to themselves: “Now is the time to pay off old grudges.” So the Boar came up and drove at him with his tusks; then a Bull gored him with his horns; still the Lion lay helpless before them: so the Ass, feeling quite safe from danger, came up, and turning his tail to the Lion kicked up his heels into his face. “This is a double death,” growled the Lion.
Only cowards insult dying majesty.
Cri du coeur - a heartfelt plea.
Croquemitaine. A hobgoblin, an evil spirit or ugly monster used by adults to frighten children into good behaviour.  A French nursery rhyme went like this: 'Connaissez-vous Croquemitaine, Miton Miton Mitaine, il a deux yeux grands et perçants, une grosse bouche, de grande dents.'
En grande toilette, en grande tenue - dressed for a grand occasion.
En papillotes - in a state of undress, literally sill wearing curl-papers in your hair.
En passant - by the way
Faux-pas - a social blunder, causing embarrassment and loss of face.

And finally, these lovely 'French' phrases:
To take French leave. To leave without permission, without saying good bye to anyone, or to slip away unnoticed. In 18th century France it was a custom to leave an official event or a banquet without saying goodbye to the host. This phrase was first recorded after the Seven Years' War. There was a time when there was no love lost between France and England and this kind of backhanded compliment between the two countries were very common.
The French reverse the 'compliment' and say 'filer à l'anglaise' (to escape like an Englishman). And what about the 'French gout' (venereal disease), or a 'French letter' for a condom (we call it 'capote anglaise' which means 'English overcoat')?
I will be back soon with words and phrases from F to Z, but in the meantime if there are any expressions you particularly like and I have omitted here, please feel free to leave a comment.


  1. Learn something new every day! And we speak French at home.

  2. Thank you Suzanne for visiting! I didn't realise you spoke French. I used to have a French Canadian friend, here in England for a couple of years before she returned home, and her French Canadian accent and phrases were simply wonderful!

  3. So interesting, Marie. The French have such a unique way of saying things ... Such a wonderful language! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Thank you Diana for visiting and leaving a kind comment. I would tend to agree with you about the French language, but then I again, I am bound to!