Is it really so bad to refer to an entire nation of people as frogs?
Last summer, when I was giving a speech on Franco-American relations–shortly before the publication of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France–I made a frog joke. It involved a stuffed pig, a barbeque, and, well, you sort of had to be there. But it was definitely a quip about the French. The audience snickered, though a few people exchanged nervous glances. They clearly wondered if it was appropriate to laugh when somebody referred to the French as frogs.
Lighten up, I thought. Think about it: If we aimed to insult, truly and deeply and venomously, then we could skip right over cute green amphibians and compare the French to the frogs’ warty cousins, the toads. Or, in honor of Pepe LePew (as well as international perceptions about French bathing habits), we could call them skunks. Or we might allude to something else entirely and call them chickens. Or maybe even cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
Given this range of name-calling options, what’s so bad about frogs as a national nickname? The good people at Texas Christian University don’t consider frogs a derisive word. Their sports teams are called the Horned Frogs. Go Frogs!
As it happens, frogs have thin skins–and so do the French. Some in France have taken to labeling American criticisms of their government’s policies as racist, even when they’re offered in non-amphibian terms. “When you insult the French people, simply because they are French, then it’s kind of a racist campaign,” said Ambassador Jean-David Levitte. He was referring to the relatively tame late-night jokes of Jay Leno and David Letterman. My co-author Mark Molesky and I don’t actually describe the French as frogs anywhere on the pages of Our Oldest Enemy. Yet in his New York Times review of our book, French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy saw fit to call us racists anyway. This absurd charge is of course a scurrilous tactic whose goal is to end a debate about Franco-American relations that’s worth having even if doesn’t serve the interests of Jacques Chirac and his neo-Gaullist henchmen.
No matter what we conclude about the propriety of calling the French frogs, there’s still the academic question: How did the French earn this moniker? Nobody knows for sure, though there are several theories. Here are five leading ones:
1. The French fondness for eating frogs. File this one under “you are what you eat.” The only problem is that although frogs are sometimes eaten in France, the French are hardly unique in this respect. The frog, says the Oxford Companion to Food, “is perceived by the English as a staple of the French diet, [and] is indeed eaten in France but also in many other parts of the world, whether previously under French influence…or not.” The book goes on to describe frogs as having “a delicate flavor…customarily said to resemble chicken meat.” (I agree. The real problem is that there isn’t much meat on the leg-bones.) For what it’s worth, France outlawed commercial frog farming in 1977.
2. Frogs were a symbol of French royalty. This one apparently has its roots among early Frankish kings, such as Clovis I. But that seems too archaic for a slang word that’s alive and well today. Clovis I lived about 15 centuries ago.
3. The fleur-de-lys is a stylized frog. This would be an interesting idea if one of France’s best-known symbols weren’t actually based on an iris flower with three petals. One legend traces its origins to our friend Clovis I. Its roots definitely go back at least as far as Louis VI, who used the fleur-de-lys as a seal and on his coins some 900 years ago. Punsters sometimes talk of the fleur-de-Louis. Maybe someone should invent a frog-de-lys.
4. A non-Parisian putdown for Paris. Marshes apparently once ringed the French metropolis, and so the sneering aristocrats of Versailles applied the word to city slickers.
5. A Paris putdown for non-Parisians. Sophisticated urbanites sneered at the rural taste for amphibians (see #1, above), and attached the term to everybody but themselves, which is to say the bulk of the national population.
The Oxford English Dictionary points out that earliest use of the word frog as “a term of abuse” in English was in reference to the Dutch. But by the 1700s, the word was associated with the French. In her novel Evelina–an example of 18th-century chick lit–Fanny Burney includes this line: “Hark you, Mrs. Frog…you may lie in the mud till some of your Monsieurs come to help you out of it.” One of Stephen Vincent Benet’s short stories mentions “the nuisance of learning frog-talk.” A character in William Faulkner’s A Fable says, “Ask him…you can speak Frog.”
When Mark Molesky and I were looking around for artwork to decorate the cover of Our Oldest Enemy, we wondered about using a frog image. We located a political cartoon from the 1830s illustrating tensions between the United States and France. Andrew Jackson was president at the time, and he was threatening war over France’s refusal to compensate Americans for illegal ship burnings and seizures during the Napoleonic era. (“It is high time that this arrogance of France should be put down,” Jackson declared.) The cartoon shows a bare-chested Jackson raising his fists like a boxer against French King Louis Philippe of France, who is draped in royal finery–and accompanied by an entourage of tiny frogs shouting insults at Jackson. I’ve searched high and low for this image on the web; alas, the only place I can guarantee you’ll see it is in A Diplomatic History of the American People, by Thomas A. Bailey. (Mine is a second edition and the cartoon appears on page 201.) We decided that this particular illustration, however amusing, would not have worked well on a book cover. So we went with a picture of a naked lady, adapted from the famous Delacroix painting Liberty Guiding the People.
Anyway, the question of whether it’s acceptable to call the French frogs is asked only because we live in an age of suffocating political correctness. For those who seek rhetorical counsel, my advice is not to worry about saying it. If anybody gives you a funny look, just add, “Pardon my French.”
In the meantime, let’s keep an eye on the frogs–the real ones, that is. They may start to gripe about the French sullying their good name.