French letters

French letters

Mulling over what to write in this week’s blog, for no reason that is discernible the term ‘French letter’ came to mind. In Britain, this is a rather old-fashioned euphemism for a condom; in France the phrase ‘capote Anglaise’ is comparable and would be translated as ‘English overcoat‘. It seems that the term is first traced to the 1850s, a period of great tension between the two countries and in which in Britain local militias (groups of male volunteers who dressed up in fancy uniforms with guns and paraded around a lot) were formed because of fears about a French invasion. Other concerns became pressing during the period of the First World War concerning venereal disease, with official recommendation that troops sent to fight in France should either remain ‘pure‘ or use condoms to protect themselves. The worry was not for the women concerned, but keeping the men in shape in order to send them to the front.

Yes, okay, the reason that condoms might be called French is explicable. There have been historic reasons for traducing the French connected with war and invasion, and for associating dangerous sexual activity with being in WW1 France. Questions and comments on various websites rehash this information. But what is rarely considered is the other part of the term. Why letters? Some dodgy speculation says that historically condoms were made of thin leather, and the words leather and letter are almost the same!!

Early examples of condoms were often made from bits of animal bladders or gut – see Boswell’s journal from the late 18th century and that of Samuel Pepys from the late 17th century. But the suggestion that letter and leather sound the same and therefore have the same linguistic root is just plain silly. The etymological discussions unfortunately do not refer to when the ‘letter’ part of the term came about, and this is the most interesting aspect. The First World War examples that remain suggest that the packets that the condoms came in served as a kind of letter. The example shown here is from World War 2. Its use of the word envelope rather than packet is interesting, and other examples have a veritable encyclopaedia of information on them.

Last updated:  2 August 2018