December 15, 2003

He used all his French

According to the 12/15 New York Times story on Saddam Hussein's conversation with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council, Mowaffak al-Rubaie asked "When they arrested you why didn't you shoot one bullet? You are a coward. "

The response, according to Mr. al-Rubaie, was that "... he started to use very colorful language ... Basically he used all his French."

Mr. al-Rubaie went on to say

"I was the last to leave the room and I said, `May God curse you. Tell me, when are you going to be accountable to God and the day of judgment? What are you going to tell him about Halabja and the mass graves, the Iran-Iraq war, thousands and thousands executed? What are you going to tell God?' He was exercising his French language."

According to Arabic speakers that I've asked, "French" is not an expression for cursing in Arabic. Presumably al-Rubaie's remarks are a generalization of the English idiomatic meaning of "French" described by the OED as follows:

B.1.b. Used euphemistically for ‘bad language’, esp. in the phr. excuse (or pardon) my French!

1895 [see DURNED]. 1909 J. R. WARE Passing Eng. 171/1 Loosing French, violent language in English. 1922 JOYCE Ulysses 446 Bad French I got for my pains. 1936 M. HARRISON All Trees were Green II. 104 A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most. 1940 S.P.E. Tract IV. 181 Excuse my French! (forgive me my strong language). 1955 M. MCCARTHY Charmed Life (1956) ii. 52 ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’ 1961 J. O'DONOVAN Middle Tree ii. 12 A kick in the arse, smartly administered... Excuse my French! 1966 A. LA BERN Goodbye Piccadilly xxv. 220 Well I'll be buggered. Excuse my French.

The citation list suggests that this usage is not much more than a century old. The possible birth of a new idiomatic meaning of the word French was documented in this space a couple of months ago.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 15, 2003 11:21 AM