Ever wonder how all those French terms found their way into the English dictionary? Popular phrases like French fries, French toast, French horn and, of course, French kiss-where did these come from? And what about the excuse-moi phrase folks sputter after uttering off-color language: "pardon my French "?
This little stroll through linguistic supposition may not help you learn French, but you'll have some interesting conversation pieces to tuck in your pocket.
French Fries & French Toast
It's commonly believed that French fries (potato strips deep-fried in oil) originated in Belgium. The French Embassy even stated this as fact shortly after American lawmakers renamed 'French fries' and 'French toast' (as 'freedom fries' and 'freedom toast') for government cafeterias in a fit of anti-French sentiment after France spoke out against America's war with Iraq in 2003.
Whatever you call fried potato strips, it can't be disputed that a Frenchman was at the heart of the humble potato's acceptance in European society in general, and French-speaking Belgians are credited for making deep-fried potatoes popular with American GIs in particular.
A few centuries ago, the potato-originally discovered and cultivated by Incas-was shunned by Europeans. But the potato found a hero in a French chemist, Antoine August Parmentier. He survived on potatoes while a prisoner in Germany. On returning to France, Parmentier worked tirelessly to shake the potato free of its shabby reputation. He wrote a thesis on the value of the vegetable and flattered the French aristocracy with banquets featuring potato dishes.
But the vegetable didn't catch on; it was only after Parmentier planted a field of potatoes and purposefully ordered it guarded by day yet left it temptingly unattended by night that he earned the attention of the masses. French pheasants stole the potato plants for their own gardens. After the French accepted the potato as palatable, the rest of Europe followed suit.
In modern times, American soldiers were fed deep-fried potatoes by French-speaking Belgians during World War I. They took the recipe home and dubbed the delight 'French fries.' French fries didn't become wildly popular around the globe, however, until after the recipe was mass-produced by American fast food restaurants in the 1950s.
A few other theories about how the word French became part of the name-French acts as a verb that means to cut in thin lengthwise strips before cooking. To french also describes the way potatoes were fried-twice, with a pause between. In any case, modern linguists claim that french is a verb, not a proper noun, so often the F in french fries isn't capitalized.
The history of French toast is less complex, but also less certain. The most popular theory on the origin of French toast-bread slices fried in egg batter-states this recipe was created by a tavern owner in 1724 just outside Albany, New York. Supposedly, Joseph French, the restaurateur, listed the dish on his menu as 'French Toast,' named for himself. This is why the French in French toast is often capitalized.
In 17th century Europe, brass hunting horns had become quite popular. Though the hunting horn had a limited note range, Germanic hunter Count Franz Anton von Sporck was impressed with the bright sound. An avid hunter himself, he heard the hunting horns in France in the 1680s. Sporck had two of his men, Peter Rellig and Wenzel Sweda, taught to play the French hunting horn.
A few years earlier (1636) a French musical scholar named Marin Mersenne detailed four types of hunting horns in a publication and soon after, horns made their debut in orchestral concerts and theaters as a special effect instrument to depict the hunt musically.
Over the next two hundred years, musical artists all over Europe experimented with horn playing methods, removable horn crooks and horn tube patterns to make the instrument more versatile. By the mid 18th century, the evolving horn was welcomed into the concert family and called the 'orchestral horn.' Composers like Mozart and Beethoven were inspired to write solos for the instrument.
By the mid 19th century, Europeans had perfected rotating and piston valves that would allow a single horn player to reach all the notes on the chromatic scale easily. The French hunting horn had fully evolved into a multi-range musical instrument that most of the world calls the 'horn,' but that English speakers call the 'French horn.'
The French kiss, a term for a passionate, open-mouth kiss where tongues touch, came into common use in America in the 1920s. Prevailing theories state that the French preface in French kiss most likely comes from WWI British and American solders who labeled allied Frenchmen as promiscuous or less inhibited when discussing sensual matters (or both). The sensual French stereotype snowballed, and the preface, French, is now used in English as a euphemism to express ideas generally considered inappropriate or sordid.
Along that line of thought, pardon my French is another well-known euphemistic phrase that Americans use to excuse colorful, unsuitable language, often after the fact.
So whether your passion is for French fries, French horns or French kissing, don't let the fact that the phrases are more American than French get you down. Just remember that the USA's own Statue of Liberty is actually as French as "sacre bleu!" .if you'll pardon my French.