Calling the French Frogs is not polite but it could be worse….. So what is the origin of this mildly abusive term?
Edible Frog (Rana esculenta)
There are several possibilities and I will explore some of them.
The French often feature Frogs legs on their menus. How often they eat them I am not sure, possibly more are eaten by curious foreigners. I have eaten them on several occasions and they are OK, they do not taste of much, as they always say ‘a bit like chicken’ and of course they are quite small.
Why would we call the French Frogs just because they occasionally eat them? after all we do not refer to the Italians as Pizzas, or the Japanese as Shushis or the Indians as Curries. I suppose the Germans are sometimes called Krauts and is that to do with Sauerkraut ?
The French were probably not the first people to eat Frogs, In fact we Brits were cooking and eating them long ago. Cooked bones of frogs’ legs have been discovered in an archaeological dig in Amesbury Wiltshire, dating back to between 7596BC and 6250BC, evidence that indicates that they were part of the local diet.
The Chinese who were also eating them a long time ago, back in the first century AD.
One reference to the French eating them is the story that is often quoted which is that Catholic monks were not allowed to eat meat on certain days but could eat fish so they managed to get Frogs classified as fish, and were thus able to have something a little meaty every day of the week.
However many nationalities eat frogs, after all they are common, relatively easy to catch and are a source of protein so it stands to reason that they would be consumed. I would guess that the French eat more snails than they do frogs so perhaps we should call them Escargots. I therefore think that the origin of the French being known as Frogs is not because they eat them, though the fact that they do, may have added to usage of this term.
Of course using the word Frog as an insult is also strengthened by the spelling, both frog and French begin with the same two letters so the term French frogs trips off the tongue more easily.
Another possible origin is that the term Frogs was used to describe the people of Paris by courtiers at the Place of Versailles. In the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable of 1898 by E. Cobham Brewer he quotes the phrase “Qu’en disent les grenouilles?”—What will the frogs (people of Paris) say?—this was in use in 1791 and was a common court phrase at Versailles. At the time the area where Paris is now located was known as Lutetia which means Mud-land and it was surrounded by swamps. So the occupants lived like Frogs and toads in the swamp. The French nobility that would visit Versailles apparently tended to refer to Parisians as frogs because of the swampy surroundings…and only later did the term get picked up to describe the French in general.
As a possible counter attack by the Parisians they coined the word frog as a putdown for non-Parisians. The sophisticated urbanites sneered at the rural taste for amphibians and attached the term to everybody but themselves, which is to say the bulk of the national population.
Possibly the most likely cause of the term relates to heraldry and here there are two lines of thought. One relates to King Clovis who had three frogs or toads on his heraldic shield and flag, at least he did until he converted to Christianity when he adopted the Fleur-de-lis.
It is possible that Nostrodamus was the first person to refer to the French in amphibious terms. The story goes that Nostrodamus (1503 to 1566) had said ‘Les anciens crapauds prendront Sara’ meaning the ancient toads shall take Sara. Sara is Aras spelt backwards, so Nostradamus got a bit muddled but Clovis did have three toads on his shield and that refers to the Ancient Crapauds and the French (ancient crapauds ) did take the French city of Aras from the Spaniards albeit somewhat later under Louis 14th. Also it is crapauds which is toads and not frogs but its in the right direction.
Now as I mentioned earlier, King Clovis converted to Christianity and as part of this the frogs/toads were given the elbow and the Fleurs de Lis was adopted. The French flag then had a blue background with gold fleur-de-lys on it. The ignorant English, not knowing that the fleur-de-lys was supposed to be a flower, though that it represented a gold frog. Hence “frog” became a derogatory term for the French.
Given that the English and the French have been in conflict on and off throughout history… OK we love them now but if we vote to leave Europe (hopefully not) then how many years before we revert to the default position and end up in conflict again. I am rambling, my point is that soldiers always adopt derogatory terms for their enemies, I wont list all the insults we have thought up for all our foes but I am sure you can think of many. So it is most likely that English soldiers in the past would have invented names for the French and the most likely inspiration for their insults would be what they saw in front of them and that would be the flags, standards and heraldic shields that would adorn the enemy. Frogs, Toads, Fleur de Lis…. all pretty much the same thing especially in the distance and in the haze of battle so French are Frogs.
Another story relates to Queen Elizabeth I, (1533 to 1603) who was extremely fond of dancing. At the time dances involved quite a lot of leaping up. There was a young man in the French ambassadorial staff at the court who excelled at these leaps and the queen called him “My little frog”. English courtiers were envious and started using the term as a deprecatory term for all French men. She though would frequently apply the word affectionately to her close friends. She often referred to at least one of her very close friends as “my dear frog,” and at one point this gentleman was her representative in France.
Also, for a brief time she was about-to-be-engaged to the youngest son of Henri II, the Duke of Anjou. He was 24 and Elizabeth was 46. Despite the age gap, the two soon became very close, Elizabeth dubbing him her “frog”. A few believe this nickname was attributed to a frog-shaped earring he had given her. Of course, that union came to naught since Elizabeth never did marry.
In the course of researching this I came across a few odd ball suggestions and here is one. ‘ When the French laugh, their adam’s apples bulge out of their necks like frogs.’
On balance I think the most likely explanation is that the origin goes back to the middle ages and it was a term adopted by our soldiers. Subsequently it has been enhanced by the French liking for frogs legs, but I do not think main explanation.