Repartee (inexact quote) from a TV show:

Person A: Now, we're going to be getting some letters from French people.
Person B: It could be worse. You might be getting French letters.

Going by ODO and Webster, French letter appears to be a BrE euphemism for a condom. How did this come about?


OED provides no help, only an early citation:

French letter n. colloq. = condom n.
?1844 Exquisite in P. Fryer Man of Pleasure's Companion 131 Gentlemen who live in London will be at no loss in easily obtaining these ‘French Letters’.

Etymonline gives some help and a plausible explanation:

French letter "condom" (c.1856), French (v.) "perform oral sex on" (c.1917) and French kiss (1923) all probably stem from the Anglo-Saxon equation of Gallic culture and sexual sophistication, a sense first recorded 1749 in French novel.

I suspect that it's called a letter because of its packaging at the time, but I don't know how to verify that.

  • Google books yields up a medical volume from 1874 which notes the use, as well as other euphemisms. Another medical volume notes that condoms also were made from "Goldbeater's Skin" which is a similar material but normally "sheets of parchment." Funnily enough, there is a french-ish euphemism which loosely translates as English Riding Jacket (AFAICT) [ books.google.com/… ] – horatio Jan 10 '13 at 22:01

I was sure this was a duplicate, but can't find it.

Many countries with longstanding rivalries use each other's names to mean "fake". For example, in the UK:

  • French windows are actually doors (called French doors in the US)
  • French leave is going awol (in France they say filer a l'anglaise for the same thing)
  • French letters are condoms

While in the US:

  • Dutch courage is being drunk
  • a Dutch treat is neither treating the other
  • a Dutch uncle is not your uncle
  • a Dutch oven is not an oven (it's a heavy lidded pot you can achieve baking-like results with on the stovetop)

and so on

As far as I can tell, in the US, French typically means "cut into long thin strips" (French fries, frenched beans, frenched ribs on a roast) or "the glamourous luxurious way they do it in France" - French vanilla, French bread. In some parts of the country it once seems to have meant racy or sexy - the French postcards in Oklahoma! for example. I think French kiss falls into that category.

  • 1
    Dutch courage used to refer specifically first to "Dutch gin" (jenever), then to British gin when William III (who was Dutch) encouraged its production and taxed imported alcohol. The rest owe much to either this period or the Anglo-Dutch wars, and hence are found in the UK as well as the US, where they were popular because the Anglo-Dutch wars had had an effect on the (still loyal) colonists prior to the American Revolution. – Jon Hanna Jan 10 '13 at 17:26
  • 1
    Thank you. How would a French kiss fit into this line of reasoning? – coleopterist Jan 10 '13 at 17:35
  • 2
    And in France a "French letter" is a capote anglaises. Capote being a military coat. Even more old fashioned would be "redingote anglaise*. (Redingote originating in the English "riding coat"). – None Jan 10 '13 at 18:26
  • French vanilla is distinguished by the inclusion of eggs. Pesumably the French were making a more sophisticated custard?! – Andrew Lazarus Jan 11 '13 at 4:29
  • "Dutch oven" is called that because the process used to make it was derived from the Dutch process of casting iron (and the design was likely borrowed from the Dutch as well). The name is not in any way derogatory. It's an "oven" because it's large and substantial enough to permit roasting/baking in it when placed over an open fire. – Hot Licks Mar 12 '15 at 22:20

Copied and pasted from user Leelogs at Yahoo Answers:

The condom in fact derives from the Roman Empire and was indeed made of sheep gut, but it was not much used (the legion was laid low with herpes when the Goths invaded).

The French aristocracy used them widely, however, as early as the 17th century. Madame de Sevigne, writing in 1671, dismissed the use of condoms as "armour against enjoyment and a spider's web against danger". Seventy years later, the Venetian adventurer Casanova became its most ardent supporter.

In Britain the condom was viewed as a dirty Continental fetish, something for harlots or sailors. They remained curious about them, however, and young men taking the Grand Tour (through Europe via France, Italy and Greece to Constantinople and beyond) would, if sending a message home with a returning tourist, enclose a condom... thus a French letter. The culture and culinary clash of the English / French on the Grand Tour also gave rise to the terms "Rostbifs" (English) and "Frogs" (French).

The French practice of calling them English Coats derives simply from the eternal enmity of these two countries; ever keen to credit each other with things regarded as unpleasant. Ascribing "bad" habits and plagues to your nearest neighbours has always been common in Europe; during the 1917-1920 influenza pandemic the disease was called Spanish Flu in southern France, German Fever in Belgium, Greek Flu in Turkey and Arabian Flu in Greece.

On the subject of sex consider "buggery" from "bulgary" - what the English considered to be the practice of Bulgars - something the Italians (and today Americans) have long refered to as "Greek". There are also references to "Tartary" - nasty stuff the Tartars (Turks) were thought to get up to. Nothing brings out racial suspicion like sex!


Would it be possible that "letter" here were a derivation of the verb "let" in the archaic meaning given in the OED:

  1. trans. To hinder, prevent, obstruct, stand in the way of (a person, thing, action, etc.).

A "French letter" could then be a "French" device (French because in the olden times anything wicked would come from the French) that would prevent diseases/pregnancies, etc..

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