Pardon my French: Lewd language lessons in Henry V

In terms of plot, Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) is fairly straightforward: invading France after making a claim on French territories, a vastly outnumbered King Henry (Harry) dispatches them at Agincourt, uniting the two kingdoms through his subsequent marriage to the French princess. In terms of language, however, the play has a lot of texture – not to mention the Bard’s ambivalent depictions of power and war that complicate this historical drama.

With its extensive cast of characters, Henry V features a range of linguistic registers. The lofty commentary of the Chorus frames the historical action of the play. The clergy’s academic discourse convinces Harry to mount his siege. Simple peasants malaprop in prose while the King rallies his troops with impassioned battle cries: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60). And the French princess, Catherine, says cunt.

While reading the complete works of Shakespeare this year 400 years after his death, I’ve been tracking great moments in the Bard’s strong language. I started with some venereal and vituperative examples in The Taming of the Shrew.

Harry himself delivers some incredibly strong language, as I reckon it, in his threats of violence, so vivid his words can feel they verge on the taboo. When the Governour of Harfleur doesn’t at first surrender, Harry warns:

…–why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen. (3.3.110-18)

In other words, “I will fuck you – and everyone you care about – up.” Jesus Christ, Harry.

As violent as it may be, Harry’s language is not “strong” in the sweary sense we are concerned with on this blog. But Strong Language readers will enjoy the comic cursing of Harry’s captains: the Welsh Fluellen, Irish MacMorris, and Scottish Jamy. To be sure, the play’s presentation of their accents may strike some as insensitive by modern standards. But, with color to rival Petruccio’s choler, Captain Fluellen insults a common soldier as a “Jack-sauce” (4.7.128) – or, in other words, an “arrant rascally beggarly lousy knave” (4.8.32). You can’t put “Jack-sauce” on your burger, though; it means “saucy knave.”

But Shakespeare’s strongest language isn’t even voiced in English, as if the Bard’s linguistic powers weren’t already im-fucking-pressive enough. It’s in French. (The French royalty and military in the play serve largely to underscore Harry’s own majesty and might. This may hold true, linguistically, as David Steinsaltz argues in “The Politics of French Language in Shakespeare’s Plays.”)

Serving as foreshadowing, comic relief, and a kind of cultural middle finger, 3.4 features Princess Catherine, whose betrothal to Harry later unites the kingdoms, in an English language lesson.

Not unlike beginning language classes, Catherine asks her maid, Alice, the English words for various body parts. With an accent, Catherine attempts de hand, de fingres, de nails. De arma, d’elbow, de nick (“neck”), de sin (“chin”), she continues with some corrections from Alice.

Then Catherine gets to some choicer words.

CATHERINE. …Comment appelez-vous “les pieds” et “la robe”?

ALICE. “De foot,” madame, et “de cown.”

CATHERINE. “De foot” et “de cown”? O Seigneur Dieu! Ils sont les mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d’honneur d’user. Je ne voudrais prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de rance pour tout le monde. Foh! “De foot” et “de cown”! Néanmoins, je réciterai une autre fois ma leçon ensemble. “D’hand,” “de fingre,” “de nails,” “d’arma,” “d’elbow,” “de nick,” “de sin,” “de foot,” “de cown.”

ALICE. Excellent, madame! (3.4.44-54)

Shakespeare, as we know, was meant to be seen, not read. Here’s the scene from Laurence Olivier’s famed 1944 film production of the play. Renée Asherson plays a delicate and ingenuous Catherine, Ivy St. Helier, with the bawdy badinage at 02:45.

So, did you get the joke? For those of you polyglots who did, a fico (or fig) to you, as the character Pistol obscenely gestures at Fluellen at one point in the play. (For more on obscene gestures, see Rob Chirico’s piece on giving the finger.)

For those of you who didn’t? I hear ya. Catherine asks Alice how to say les pieds and la robe in English – or foot and gown, cown in this accent. Catherine replies, as my Norton Shakespeare kindly translates:

“De foot” and “de cown”? O Lord God, those are evil-sounding words, easily misconstrued, vulgar, and immodest, and not respectable for ladies to use. I wouldn’t speak those words in front of French gentlemen for all the world. Ugh! “De foot” and “de cown”! Still, I shall recite my entire lesson once more. “D’hand,” “de fingre,” “de nails,” “d’arma,” “d’elbow,” “de nick,” “de sin,” “de foot,” “de cown.”

Now, pardon my French, but foot sounds like foutre, “to fuck,” while cown sounds like con, or “cunt,” among their many other vulgar valences. (I hope our French-speaking readers will weigh in on these words, as I can’t call myself a Francophone.) In spite of her (voiced) consternation, Catherine goes on to repeat the “evil-sounding” de foot and de cown two more times each.

I’m also curious about nick, which my text of the play does not gloss. In the scene, Alice offers it as the English for le col, or “neck.” While generally a kind of “notch,” nick was also once slang for “butt crack” and “vagina” in English. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the former in the 1560s and dates the latter before the 1620s. Shakespeare may well have added yet more texture to our sweary lesson.

How much of the French would Shakespeare’s audience have actually gotten, let alone the cross-linguistic profanity puns? Olivier’s interpretation aside, I imagine Shakespeare’s groundlings guffawed at Catherine’s clumsy efforts at English while nobles snickered at a princess using profanity. And given the historic tensions between the two nations, this laughter may have swelled with a prideful superiority. In this light, the most vulgar words may not have been the French puns on fuck and cunt, but, for those Elizabethan ears, French itself.

But as far as the actual French is concerned in the play, perhaps the French get the last laugh after all, as I understand Shakespeare’s French is hardly refined. And here at Strong Language, though, our fuck’s are inclusive. English, French, well-formed, poorly formed, princess, peasant, Elizabethan, modern? They’re all profane poetry to our ears.

Text quoted from The Norton Shakespeare (1997, W.W. Norton, ed. Stephen Greenblatt). 

22 thoughts on “Pardon my French: Lewd language lessons in Henry V

  1. davebarclay1954 February 5, 2016 / 10:00 am

    I knew there was more to Shakespeare than met the eye. Given that there were no actresses in his day and all the parts were played by men that language becomes the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Keith Rhodes February 5, 2016 / 11:18 am

    I’m also curious about nick

    Part of the caricture of a French accent is to make all vowels long. Nick therefore becomes “neek” (/ni:k/). Written in french orthography this is “nique”.

    In the dayes of olde, when knights were bolde, there was an expression “faire la nique” which was the equivalent of “to cock a snook”, or as Shakespeare has Sampson do in Romeo and Juliet “bite one’s thumb”.

    But in modern French, there is the verb “niquer”, that means “to fuck”, usually in the expression “nique ta mère”. There was a rap group called “NTM” a few years ago, and at the moment there’s a humorous music video on Youtube about somebody who didn’t say “bonjour” and so “il s’est fait niquer sa mère”


    • John Kelly February 6, 2016 / 5:48 pm

      Thanks for the insights, Keith. I agree on the caricatured accent, though I think a pun on “nick” can still be layered on top of it, though we can never be quite sure what the Bard intended. Hooray for textual interpretation! Lane, below, also comments on “niquer,” tracing it to Arabic and says its relatively recent.


  3. John Cowan February 5, 2016 / 1:42 pm

    Con nowadays is relatively unoffensive in the sense ‘fool’, as is the case for cunt in BrE, whereas in AmE it retains its genital meaning and its full taboo force. In Shakespeare’s day, however, this secondary sense of con probably did not yet exist. In a surgical textbook translated from French into English around 1400, we find the delightful sentence In wymmen þe necke of þe bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte; I suppose that the original read con. The translator, I should add, had the determinative name of Robert von Fleischhacker (‘meat-chopper’), almost as good as those two quite genuine British urologists, A. J. Splatt and D. Weedon.


    • Robert H. February 5, 2016 / 5:55 pm

      That is hilarious, but what does “maad” mean? Is it an older sense of our contemporary “mad”? Or “made”?


      • craftyrogue February 8, 2016 / 1:58 pm

        “maad fast to” = “connected to” (made fast to)


    • John Kelly February 6, 2016 / 5:49 pm

      From what I am gathering from you and other excellent comments on this post, the punch of “con” lands differently today, as it does for “cunt” (cp. “cunt” in AmE vs. BrE), which your delightful quote indeed underscores.


  4. Messire Nicolas February 5, 2016 / 1:47 pm

    Frenchman (and faithful reader) here.

    Indeed, “Foutre” once was a perfect translation of “fuck”. Until the XIXth century, it was even as commonly used as a swearword. The revolutionary orator journalist Hébert (le “Père Duchesne”), who made a point of speaking like the “sans-culottes”, wrote it a lot. Nowadays, it only lives in sentences like “J’en ai rien à foutre.” (“I don’t give a fuck”), “Va te faire foutre.” (“Go fuck yourself”, literally “go be fucked”) or “Qu’est-ce que tu fous ?” (“What the fuck are you doing?”).

    And the most common vulgar word for “fucking” has become “baiser” (archaically, “to kiss” — but we still say “un baiser” for “a kiss”). “Embrasser” (“to embrace”) has taken the meaning of “to kiss”, and we are reduced to using “prendre dans ses bras” (“to take in your arms”) for “to embrace”.

    Likewise, “con” was until the same period applied to the vagina. We even had “enconner” for “cuntfucking” (nowadays, we just have “enculer” for “arsefucking”). Today, it just means an idiot or a jerk. And the most common wulgar word for “cunt” is “chatte” (that is, the female cat ; we say “chatte” like you say “pussy”). There is also a childish word for it, “minou” (“kitty cat”).

    I have digressed a bit. I love language, especially the “strong” variety.

    And I bought the Green’s dictionary of slang you recommended to me. It’s amazing. It’s a shame Francophones are deprived of such a wonderful work.


    • John Kelly February 6, 2016 / 5:45 pm

      These are wonderful – and very helpful – observations on “foutre” and “con” past and present. Thanks, and I’m glad you are enjoying the Green!


  5. John Cowan February 5, 2016 / 2:08 pm

    By the way, here’s the First Folio version of Catherine’s speech above (to be sure, this surely owes something to the ignorance of the English printers, rather than being straight from Shakespeare’s pen):

    Le Foot, & le Count: O Seignieur Dieu, il sont le mots de son mauvais corruptible grosse & impudique, & non pour le Dames de Honeur d’ vser: Ie ne voudray pronouncer ce mots deuant le Seigneurs de France, pour toute le monde, fo le Foot & le Count, neant moys, Ie recitera vn autrefoys ma lecon ensembe, d’ Hand, de Fingre, de Nayles, d’ Arme, d’ Elbow, de Nick, de Sin, de Foot, le Count.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SamC February 5, 2016 / 3:11 pm

    Other Francophiles – is the “Je ne voudrais prononcer” without “pas” or another negative a mistake on Shakespeare’s part, or colloquial, or correct at the time? It’s an easy mistake for English speakers to make in French so it jumped out at me.
    And seconding that “con” doesn’t really mean “cunt” in today’s French, at least in the way I know the word in AmE. I though the translation to “Schmucks” in “Dinner for Schmucks” (based off the French “Diner des Cons”) was fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. sesquiotic February 5, 2016 / 3:38 pm

    Here’s the version with Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan from Kenneth Branagh’s movie. I have no idea why this video is in black and white; the movie is colour. But I can’t find a colour version of this scene.

    (I have just noticed that Christian Bale played Robin the Luggage Boy in this movie.)


    • John Kelly February 5, 2016 / 5:04 pm

      I’ve not seen this version in full, though I did view while composing the piece. Emma Thomspon certainly plays Catherine more saucily, to be sure, and I enjoy her interpretation more, to be honest.A black and white scene from a color movie, Christian Bale the Luggage Boy? This clip is raising lots of questions.


  8. Lane February 5, 2016 / 4:50 pm

    As for “de nick”, modern French has “niquer”, to fuck, but a bit of Googling suggests that that’s from Arabic and so quite recent.


    • John Kelly February 6, 2016 / 5:43 pm

      Very interesting! Great observation in re Arabic.


  9. Messire Nicolas February 5, 2016 / 7:59 pm

    Samc :
    “Other Francophiles – is the “Je ne voudrais prononcer” without “pas” or another negative a mistake on Shakespeare’s part, or colloquial, or correct at the time? It’s an easy mistake for English speakers to make in French so it jumped out at me.”

    I don’t know about the French language of the time, but I can tell you it is correct today.

    As a rule of thumb, “pas” without “ne” is colloquial, but “ne” without “pas” or another negative is formal.

    Full explanation :

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Keith Rhodes February 6, 2016 / 9:07 am


    In earlier French (I don’t know at what time this changed, but at a guess sometime between C17 and C18), the negation was ne + verb + noun.

    Two examples that spring to mind are
    “I drink not” was “je ne bois goutte”: “I drink not a drop”
    “I eat not” was “je ne mange mie”: “I each not a crumb”.

    “I walk not” was “je ne marche pas”: “I walk not a pace”. This is the form that seems to have spread from its original construction to become the most widely used form.

    There exist, however, a few other forms that are used.
    “ne + verb + rien” is very much in use, e.g. “je ne regrette rien”: “I regret nothing”.

    “ne + verb + point …” can be used either to deliberately appear archaic for the sake of humour, or to express a kind of absolute absence of the action.
    “ne + verb + ni + ne + verb[ + adverbial phrase]” to express neither one action nor another, e.g. “je ne cours ni ne nage après le souper”, “I neither run nor swim after supper”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Cowan February 7, 2016 / 7:48 pm

      And then there’s that delightfully vague politician’s reply: Ni oui, ni non, bien au contraire! ‘Neither yes nor no, but on the contrary!’

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Sophie February 6, 2016 / 2:51 pm

    “de sin” is also pretty close to “sein” (breast), I had to watch the video to see she was pointing to her chin, I would have inferred she’d be pointing to her bosom.

    Liked by 1 person

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