Because of Cubbie’s support for our troops, we no longer serve French fries. We now serve freedom fries.”
(Sign placed in the window of Cubbie’s restaurant in Beaufort, North Carolina, 2002.)

For most English speakers, the French language—and even the word French itself—has always been associated with elegance and graceful living. Being able to pepper conversations with French says a lot about how cultured, educated, and sophisticated you are. Whether you’re talking about fashion (haute couture), food (nouvelle cuisine), literature (roman à clef), theater (entr’acte), art (trompe l’œil), or politics (coup d’État), French loanwords are everywhere. But this French polish hides a completely different reality that the Iraq war brought to light some fifteen years ago in the U.S.

A third-rate nation?

U.S. congressman Pete King once said that he and his fellow citizens had “the feeling that we’ve been a public punching bag for too long by a third-rate nation like France and the only question is what we should do about it.”

Mr. King said aloud what some of his fellow citizens must have been thinking deep down, if the chain reaction to France’s refusing to get involved in the Iraq war is anything to go by. Bob Ney, the then-congressman from Ohio, ordered the word “French” stricken from all menus on Capitol Hill. In West Palm Beach, Florida, the owner of a bar poured all his French wine out onto the street and announced he would only serve wine “from countries that support U.S. foreign policy.” Boycotts were organized, barriers were built, debates grew heated.

Yet chastising the French has been an actual part of the English language for centuries! Let’s take a look:

When you think French, think suspicious

Describing something as “French” in English often denotes something suspicious or questionable.

The entry for the word French in the Oxford English Dictionary specifies that the adjective is used “in various venereal disease names”: French pox (syphilis) in 1503, French marbles (syphilitic testicles) in 1592, French mole (skin rash) in 1607, French measles (roseola) in 1612, amorous French aches (lovesickness) in 1664, French goods (venereal disease in general) in 1678, French complement in 1688, and French gout in 1700. Condoms have been called French letters or French caps.

For many years, French crown was used to describe bald spots caused by syphilis, to be frenchified meant to contract a venereal disease, and French sores were the physical markers of the disease.

And who hasn’t heard of French kissing, an activity that all dignified young English ladies should avoid at all costs! In response to Peter King’s remarks, a journalist for the Canadian newspaper National Post joked—at least we hope it was a joke—that Americans should switch French kissing for liberty licking instead!

At one time, people used the term French postcards to describe pornographic images. An English woman who lived with a French man was described as French by injection. And even today, when we swear, we excuse ourselves by saying pardon my French.

When the French duck out…

The expression to take French leave also leaves a less-than-flattering impression. It is said to derive from the French custom of leaving a function without saying goodbye to the host. The expression gained currency after the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), which saw New France fall into English hands, when it was frequently used to describe a soldier who deserted his regiment.

…the English get jealous

These insults aside, it’s undeniable that English speakers view French as the language of love. Their tendency to associate the word French with sexual activities is just one example. Howard Richler, a former columnist at the Montreal Gazette, gives a more positive example with this romantic dialogue from the Woody Allen film Bananas:

  • Woody Allen: I love you, I love you.
  • Louise Lasser: Oh, say it in French! Oh, please, say it in French!
  • Woody: I don’t know French.
  • Louise: Oh, please… please!
  • Woody: What about Hebrew?
  • Louise [disappointed]: Oh.

When you think French, think luxury

Even if there were many calls at the time to boycott French products in the U.S., French was still synonymous with luxury and sophistication: French cuisine, French cuff, French window, French heel, French horn. Or products like fine wine, fine cheese, truffles, perfume, haute couture, and all the many other treasures that hail from the land of baguettes and berets. New York University scholar Tony Judt, who has written extensively on French culture, posits that for Americans, “France stands for everything they like about Europe and feel insecure about.”

Anglophones have always had a quintessential love-hate relationship with France and French people. The singer and American expat Josephine Baker summed it up nicely when she said, “I like Frenchmen very much, because even when they insult you they do it so nicely.”

But don’t be fooled—the French know how to defend themselves and can give as good as they get. French letters are referred to as capotes anglaises (English caps) in French. Avoir ses anglais (the English are visiting) is a slang way to say you have your period. And if a guest dares leave a party without saying goodbye to the host, the French don’t hesitate to say that il a filé à l’anglaise (he beat an English retreat)!