Why Do We Say “Pardon My French” When We Curse?

undrey/iStock via Getty Images
undrey/iStock via Getty Images


My dad always used to preface the dropping of an F-bomb or a tangent of creative profanity with a request that listeners “pardon his French.” Surely you’ve known people who do this too or seen it in movies or TV. The idea is that the phrase excuses the speaker for using some coarse words under the coy pretense that they’re from a foreign language.

The phrase appears in the U.S. in this usage as early as the 1800s, and linguists think that it derives from a more literal usage. That is, English speakers dropped French words or phrases into conversation—whether to display their culture, refinement or social class, or because sometimes only a French phrase has that certain je ne sais quoi—and then apologized for it if the listener wasn’t familiar with the word or didn’t speak the language. An example of this usage pops up in the 18th-19th century British fashion magazine The Lady’s Magazine, or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to Their Use and Amusement in 1830: “Bless me, how fat you are grown! Absolutely as round as a ball. You will soon be as enbon-point (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.”

The phrase may have been appropriated for covering foul language because it fits the habit of ascribing unsavory habits or objects to the French through nicknames in English. For example, "taking French leave" is leaving a gathering without saying goodbye and thanking the host; "French letter" is an archaic nickname for a condom; “French kiss” implies the gratuitous use of the tongue; and herpes used to be widely known as the “French disease.”

If you’ve got a question you want me to tackle in a post, you can email me at askmatt@mentalfloss.com.

11 Lively Gifts for Plant Parents

Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market
Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market

Many folks have been showing off their green thumbs this year thanks to the pandemic, so why not encourage their hobbies? There's a special gift for every kind of plant parent out there—think starter grow kits to gardening tools to cute cartoon socks. If the Christmas tree in the living room isn't enough greenery for your gift recipient's taste this festive season, we have some great gift options below.

1. Back To The Roots Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit; $25

Back to the Roots/World Market

Herb gardens are compact, useful, and easy to maintain. If your giftee lives in an apartment and doesn't have outdoor space for a large garden, Back To The Roots's Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit—a three-pack of basil, cilantro, and mint—is a great place for them to start their indoor horticultural journey.

Buy it: World Market

2. Plants Rock Cactus Growing Kit; $13

Plants Rock/World Market

Another option for small spaces is cacti, which do not require much water or attention. This kit makes it easy to start growing cacti in your gift recient's home. The tools are all included, so all your giftee has to do is plant the seeds and set the ceramic pot in a sunny spot.

Buy it: World Market

3. Picnic Time Folding Garden Stool With Tools; $69

Picnic Time/World Market

For more experienced gardeners, tools are essential for helping plants thrive. This stool with tools might solve the problem of sore knees and backs from kneeling in dirt. Not only is the seat portable and lightweight, but it also includes a storage tote and five pockets for tools like the included trowels and garden forks.

Buy it: World Market

4. Green and Pink Ribbed-Glass Plant Misters; $26

World Market

Indoor plants need as much care and attention as their outdoor cousins, but lugging around a watering can may cause a mess in your giftee's home. Using this set of two plant misters is an easy way to keep moisture-loving plants like orchids and Boston ferns nice and dewy.

Buy it: World Market

5. Cotton Macramé Plant Hanger; $18

World Market

Macramé plant hangers were all the rage back in the '70s. They've made a comeback this year as people have become craftier at home. This plant hanger is great for showing off plants that grow long, curtain-like tendrils and helpful when your giftee lives in a small space. With the roof as the limit, they can pack in as many plants as they want.

Buy it: World Market

6. Can't Kill Me 2021 Calendar; $8

TF Publishing/World Market

If your gift recipient loves plants but can't keep real ones alive, give them this mini wall calendar. It features, well, plant arrangements they can't kill, like succulents, bonsai trees, and snake plants. This calendar will surely add a dose of green to their home office.

Buy it: World Market

7. The New Plant Parent: Develop Your Green Thumb and Care for Your House-Plant Family; $17

Harry N. Abrams/Amazon

All gardeners want one simple thing: to know more about keeping their plants alive and thriving. This book has all the essentials for cultivating houseplants. It's full of tips and tricks for repotting a plant, taking care of certain types of plants, and adjusting light for your plant baby's survival.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Homenote Bamboo Plant Labels; $14

HOMENOTE/Amazon

Plant labels are a great way for your giftee to remember where they planted their rosemary versus their parsley before they sprout. This 60 label set comes with a pen, so the labeling process is a breeze.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Blue Q Proud Plant Mom Socks; $13

Blue Q/Amazon

Proud plant moms want to show off their love for their greenery any way they can. That's why these crew socks will be a hit with any of your green-thumbed friends. Blue Q also donates 1 percent of its sales revenue to Doctors Without Borders.

Buy it: Amazon

10. EuroGraphics 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle; $20

EuroGraphics Toys/Amazon

This 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle will occupy your gift recipients from the fall harvest to the spring planting season. The challenging design of multiple succulents features each plant's common and scientific name.

Buy it: Amazon

11. AeroGarden Indoor Hydroponic Garden; $124

AeroGarden/Amazon

If seasons don't matter to your giftee and they want to start their herb garden right now, then the AeroGarden is going to be their best friend. They'll be able to grow herbs like dill, thyme, and mint indoors in the middle of winter. Thanks to the LED grow lights, there is no need to worry about plants getting enough sunlight. They can grow up to six plants at a time, all year round.

Buy it: Amazon

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Everything You Wanted to Know About the Electoral College But Were Afraid to Ask

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

As you have no doubt been reminded countless times, when you cast your vote in a presidential election, you're not taking part in a nationwide popular vote, but rather helping decide who your state's Electoral College delegates will be. There are all sorts of arguments for and against using this system rather than picking a winner based solely on the national popular vote, but for the moment, it looks like the Electoral College will be sticking around for a while. So here are several questions you've probably wondered at one time or another, but were afraid to ask.

Who makes up the Electoral College?

Different states choose their electors in different ways. Some states have nominations for electors during party conventions, while others choose their electors by committee. In Pennsylvania, the campaigns choose their own electors. The only real things that can disqualify you from becoming an elector are holding a federal office or having engaged in some sort of insurrection against the U.S. government. Chosen electors are generally loyal party members who can be counted on to cast a ballot that's in line with their state's popular vote.

Where and when does the Electoral College vote?

Although the name might make you think that all the electors meet in a centralized location to cast their ballots, the Electoral College never actually convenes as a unified group. Instead, the chosen electors all meet at an appointed place in their respective states (or the District of Columbia), almost always the capital, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December of an election year to cast their votes. The votes are then counted in a joint session of Congress on January 6th.

What happens if no candidate receives 270 Electoral votes?

If no candidate can grab a majority (currently 270) of the Electoral College's votes after the joint session, the House of Representatives meets immediately to pick the new president. In this situation, each state's representatives get together and pick a candidate among the top three vote-getters in the Electoral College balloting. Each state's delegation then casts one vote. This process keeps going on indefinitely until a single candidate receives a majority of the states' votes. The House of Representatives has picked two presidents: Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election (though under different rules) and John Quincy Adams in the 1824 election.

Who chooses the vice president if there's a tie in the Electoral College?

Since electors also tally ballots for vice president, the same situation can arise within that office. In these cases, the Senate immediately goes into session to pick a vice president, although each senator has their own vote and they choose between the top two vote-getters. The Senate votes until a candidate receives a majority of the cast votes. This sort of contingent election has happened just once: In 1836, Martin Van Buren's running mate, Richard M. Johnson, needed 148 votes to win the vice presidency, but Virginia's electors refused to vote for him. As a result, he ended up stuck with 147 votes, and the Senate had to hold a contingent election, where Johnson cruised by Whig candidate Francis Granger.

Can the Electors change their mind?

They can, but they then become what are known as faithless electors. Technically, states make their electors pledge to vote in a certain way, and 33 states (plus D.C.) have laws requiring electors vote for their candidate. However, with a few exceptions like Michigan and Minnesota, votes cast by faithless electors still count in the final tally.

Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, center, carries a ballot box containing the 12 Massachusetts electoral votes for Vice President Al Gore as he is led by Sergeant-at Arms Michael Rea, right, during the Electoral College voting at the Statehouse December 18, 2000 in Boston.Pool Photo/Getty Images

Have There been many faithless electors?

Faithless electors have actually popped up fairly frequently in American electoral history. One notable instance of faithless electors rearing their heads occurred in 1972. Roger MacBride, the treasurer of the Republican Party of Virginia, was a pledged elector for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Instead, he cast his ballot for the Libertarian ticket. While this vote put him firmly on the outs with the state GOP, he became something of a Libertarian folk hero. In fact, Libertarians were so enthused by his vote that he won the party's presidential nomination in the 1976 election.

Although most switcheroos don't benefit small-party candidates like this one did, they're not all that uncommon—and not a recent trend, either. In 1820, William Plumer was supposed to vote for James Monroe, but voted for John Quincy Adams instead (his motivations have long been questioned—including a popular belief that he wished Washington to remain the only unanimously chosen president—but according to historian C.O. Paullin, Plumer told his son that it was because he felt Monroe lacked foresight and neglected his duty). Although Ronald Reagan won sound victories in 1980 and 1984, he also received a single electoral vote in 1976. Mike Padden, a faithless elector from Spokane, Washington, cast his vote for Reagan instead of Gerald Ford, as he had pledged.

Does the winner of the popular vote in each state get all the electoral votes, too?

Yes, for most states, the winner of the popular vote gets all of the state's electors. However, Maine and Nebraska allocate their electors a little differently. Since each seat in Congress is roughly analogous to one vote in the Electoral College, these states let each congressional district pick its own candidate. The state's remaining two electoral votes, which correspond to the state's two Senators, go to whichever candidate wins the popular vote within the state. Technically, this system could result in a state's electoral votes being split between two candidates. In practice, though, all of the districts tend to vote the same way. Although Maine and Nebraska have been using this system since 1972 and 1992, respectively, each has only split once—in 2008 Obama won Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, and in 2016 Trump won Maine’s 2nd.

What happens if a president-elect dies before officially taking office?

The national election takes place on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, but the Electoral College won't formally meet to cast their votes until December. If a candidate dies or becomes otherwise unfit to take office in the interim, a thorny issue pops up. Some states, like Virginia, legally bind their electors to vote for the candidate whose name was on the general election ballot (though some scholars say that the major parties could nominate a new candidate, and Justice Elena Kagan specifically noted in the recent opinion surrounding binding electors, “because the situation is not before us, nothing in this opinion should be taken to permit the States to bind electors to a deceased candidate.”) Other states are more flexible and would allow their electors to vote for the ticket's vice-presidential candidate or other agreed-upon candidate.

Luckily, this scenario has never happened with an election winner. In 1872, though, Horace Greeley died just over three weeks after Ulysses S. Grant thumped him in the election. Since the Electoral College still had to meet to elect Grant, electors who would have voted for Greeley simply spread their 66 votes were among other candidates. As a result, Thomas Andrews Hendricks actually came in second in the election with 42 electoral votes despite not campaigning for the presidency; he was busy successfully running for Governor of Indiana. Three electors actually voted for Greeley even though he was dead, but they were rejected.

If the president-elect dies after the votes are counted in Congress but before the inauguration, the Twentieth Amendment states that the vice president-elect becomes president. But if someone dies in the period between the Electoral College voting and the votes being counted, that’s less straightforward because it’s not immediately clear at which of those two moments a candidate becomes president-elect and the Twentieth Amendment kicks in.

John Fortier, director of governmental studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told AP, “That’s the worst, most confusing time,” while the National Archives commented that “We don’t know what would happen if a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between the meeting of electors and the counting of electoral votes in Congress.”

Though Thomas H. Neale of the Congressional Research Service [PDF] wrote that, while there are some who argue that a candidate doesn’t become president-elect until the count before Congress, House reports accompanying the Twentieth Amendment indicate that the intent is for the December date, meaning severe Constitutional questions should be averted.

What if the president-elect gets severely ill but doesn’t die?

The circumstances surrounding a not-dead-but-can’t-serve-president-elect are less clear. According to Neale, it hinges on the Twentieth Amendment’s statement “if the president-elect shall have failed to qualify, then the vice president-elect shall act as president until a president shall have qualified.” Neale writes “the Twentieth Amendment does not appear to specifically cover such other circumstances as resignation from the ticket, disability, or disqualification of either the president or vice president-elect,” continuing:

“In the case of a president-elect, however, if the language of the amendment were interpreted so that the aforementioned circumstances constituted a ‘failure to qualify,’ then the vice president-elect would act as president ‘until a president shall have qualified.’ Under this construction, a vice president-elect could arguably act as president until a disabled president-elect regained health, or, if the president-elect had resigned from the ticket, failed to regain health, or subsequently died from the effects of a disability, the vice president might serve as acting president for a full four-year term.”

This story has been updated for 2020.