Discussion in 'English Only' started by Mph redux, Jul 18, 2007.
I've just learned that condoms in UK may be also called French letters.
It would be quite an old-fashioned way to refer to them.
I believe it stems from the fact that they were issued to British soldiers on leave in France during World War One.
The OED's earliest quotation is from around 1856.
I seem to recall that a condom in French is a capote Anglaise = English overcoat, which adds further confusion.
It's a large overcoat with a hood, usually - an item of military costume: here's the best photo I could find - surplus stock from the hospital corps - http://www.stockdenfert.com/product_info.php?products_id=31, or the hood of a convertible car. In normal circumstances I would now produce my piece on the habit all over Europe of attributing contraceptive devices, diseases, and particularly nasty habits, to neighbouring countries, with examples - it's funny: some have even called it brilliant, but last time I gave it to the world I was Panjed. I'm now braced for the worst.
Go on, I'm listening...
Oh Thomas, you wouldn't!
If someone could rationally and effectively give an answer to the specific question of this thread, I am sure it would be appreciated ... ...
Well, in French, lettre d'amour means love letter, and lettre de présentation means letter of introduction. Maybe there is some history there ...
Here's a reasonable explanation:
"The most likely origin of "French letters" lies in an interesting but now obsolete verb let, ‘to hinder or prevent’, as in "without let" or hindrance and the more familiar tennis expression "let ball" (where the progress of the ball is hindered by the net). . .a letter could refer to someone or something that hindered. The purpose of the French letter is precisely this — to hinder or prevent in this case conception or to prevent the spread of venereal infection" Wise Words - Episode 19 - Can We Help - ABC TV
Maybe it's a letter because it lets you do what your passion desires without consequences....
My Websters 3rd International lists "French Letters" (caps.) as slang, chiefly British.
It also lists "French Disease" as syphilis.
The French have a lot to answer for.
The "French" was picked for the same reason that "French disease" and "French kiss" were coined: stereotypes and racial enmity.
As for letters, I always thought that a condom was similar to an envelope, topologically and in use (as a protective covering), hence the "letter" reference.
There is a not so conclusive discussion on the origin of French Letters here. Another source is quoted which:
which makes me wonder if 17th century warfare was a little different from how I imagined it. I thought they used muskets.
A note to Packard - the French used to refer to syphilis as the English disease.
The fraternal warmth between the French and the English is famous, of course
And the English called it the Great Spanish Pox because it was brought back from the Americas by Columbus.
I thought pig's intestine had been used for this purpose for donkey's years - both to inhibit conception and to prevent contagion.
thanks to all!
that was really interesting!
Just came across this thread and it reminded me of something I recently read.
May I suggest that the good Colonel was reading the dedication in Charles Baudelaires 'Les Fluers du Mal' ....
fleursdumal.org/poem/098 (can't post urls)
It was published in 1857 I know and that seems to coincide with Panjandrums suggestion, around 1856.
Your equivalent of fetish porn these days maybe?
If it was the other way around and Charles B. was referring to Colonel Condum, then by Jingos he must have been a British spy, undermining French society with his wicked words...
Old thread, but this came up in a discussion.
French is used to label anything considered rather decadent, I think, as the Online Etymology Dictionary notes:
Separate names with a comma.