Friday’s French – autant pour moi – au temps pour moi – sorry

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It took me a while to actually understand what this expression is all about. Autant usually means “as much as” or “as many as”, such as prenez autant que vous voulez – take as much as you want. Autant pour moi may be short for C’est autant pour moi with the general idea being “so much for me”.

I have since discovered a more plausible explanation. It seems that the real expression is au temps pour moi, of military origin where temps is the precise moment in time at which certain movements are made and distinguished by a pause when using a weapon. It’s the same idea as “marching in time” or “clapping in time”. Saying au temps pour moi is like admitting you weren’t in time.

But the origin remains a controversy and today, autant pour moi is found at least as often as au temps pour moi. The Collins-Robert bilingual dictionary gives “It’s my mistake” as a translation, which is pretty close to the idea being conveyed.

However, the real meaning is a lot subtler than that, as I have come to realise over the years. It is actually a male substitute for an apology about being wrong.

I don’t know about other Anglophone countries, but Australia is a very apologetic nation. People are always saying they’re sorry about something, even when it’s not their fault.

It’s not very French though. Je suis désolé(e) exists of course, and is used, when a woman, in particular, wants to express commisseration e.g. je suis désolée d’avoir appris que vous avez été cambriolée – I’m sorry to learn you have been burgled.

Very often, only the past participle is used, without the verb, and the meaning is much more cursory, e.g. désolé d’être en retard – sorry I’m late.

More often than not, it is used to convey exactly the opposite, Je suis désolé mais je n’irai pas – I’m sorry but I’m not going, which is also a perfectly acceptable English usage as well, the difference being that it is used more often in French.

The reflexive verb s’excuser is far more frequently used than désolé in the apologetic sense. Excusez-moi d’être en retard – literally “forgive me for being late” but more like our “I’m sorry I’m late” in terms of frequency and register.

You can also say je vous demande pardon or je vous demande de me pardonner, both of which are sincere apologies for having done something undesirable. Ditto for je vous présente mes excuses.

To apologise for being wrong is something altogether different and seems to go against the grain. This is where autant pour moi comes in. Someone makes a blatant error, insisting upon it until you prove they’re wrong. When you finally produce evidence, they say with a shrug autant pour moi.

There is another version of excusez-moi which is typically French as well : je m’excuse – literally “I excuse myself!” At least that way there is no fear of their apology being refused … It’s usually used when you’ve finally managed to wring out an apology from some one. The polite form is je vous prie de m’excuser or voulez-vous bien m’excuser. Now je m’en excuse is slightly different and conveys the idea of “I’m sorry about that”.

There are a few other synonyms out there such as contrarié , chagriné, confus, embêté and navré, each conveying a slightly different meaning.

Je suis contrariée d’être en retard : I’m sorry I’m late, with the idea that I really did want to come on time but something prevented me that I couldn’t do anything about.

Je suis chagriné d’apprendre le décès de votre père : I’m sorry to learn of your father’s decease, with the idea of being emotionally affected. It would be a bit OTT to say Je suis chagriné d’être en retard!

Je suis en retard ; je suis vraiment confus, I’m late; I’m really sorry, gives the idea that I am embarrassed about being late. It doesn’t mean “confused” of course. If you want to say “Everyone’s telling me something different. I’m confused”, you could say Tout le monde me dit quelque chose de différent. Je ne sais pas quoi penser. Confusing, huh?

Je suis embêté d’arriver en retard, I’m sorry I’m late, meaning that I am personally annoyed about not being on time and have probably missed out on something.

Je suis navré d’être en retard : I’m sorry I’m late, but I’m polite and well-educated and sincere about it, not just paying lip service.

Sorry about all that confusion – have you got it straight now? What do my French friends think?

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14 thoughts on “Friday’s French – autant pour moi – au temps pour moi – sorry”

  1. Oh dear — I’ve picked up virtually none of these nuances and fear I will never remember most of it. It’s really useful stuff though. Many thanks for running through it so clearly.

  2. You certainly have analysed the situations well and perhaps if a time comes when I’ve been living in France for sufficient time, I might be able to try them. Ta muchly.

  3. This is a really timely post for me! I’m American and recently moved to France to be with my new French husband, and I’ve been shocked (and often offended) by his resistance to apologize. In the US, especially the midwest, apologies are handed out quite easily. I’d never thought about it, but am now realizing that they play a major role in keeping the peace and demonstrating faith in relationships, and I’m finding it hard to move forward when it feels like one is being withheld. Here, it seems like an apology reflects someone’s personal shortcoming and has more do to with power than self-reflection and strengthening relationships. Reading this post, it strikes me that the kind of apology that is so common in American relationships may not even exist in French culture.

    1. Hi Ellen, you’ve analysed the situation well and I think that you will definitely have to change your expectations with respect to apologies from your French husband. The important thing is that he understands why you are upset about something. Remember that apologies in English can sometimes be very empty. My post yesterday was actually sparked off by something my husband did. It was not of great importance (he didn’t confirm he wasn’t coming home for lunch which messed me around) but it didn’t occur to him to apologize, only to give an explanation. His phone battery was flat. I suggested he could have borrowed someone else’s phone but he hadn’t thought of it. I prodded gently, explaining that it was rather annoying (but keeping a light tone). That’s when he came out with “Je m’excuse.” I just laughed and wrote the post.
      So, don’t be offended when your husband doesn’t apologize. Try and see what other methods he uses to keep the peace. Just admitting that he’s wrong about something is probably apology enough.
      One very big word of advice – the more you keep your sense of humour in a mixed language relationship, the better it’ll be!

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Rosemary. The story you described sounds a lot like many experiences that I’ve had and it’s helpful to know that I’m not alone in noticing the difference and will keep your advice in mind. Not always easy to stay light in these situations but oh so important!

  4. I found the post…Ill keep it open to read and learn after I have finished writing my little piece….Nice to see you have won some awards – congratulations 🙂

  5. This is very interesting, thank you, including the comments threads. It throws light on differing cultural expectations and the way in which a perceived failure to adhere to conventions on grovelling can exacerbate arguments and misunderstandings…

    1. I still remain perplexed at when people apologize and when they don’t. I had a RdV with a real estate agent this week. I phoned when she was ten minutes late to check I was at the right spot. She was still in the office and said she’d be right over. I sat down on the cold stone steps and waited another 10 minutes. She arrived with the wrong keys and didn’t have her cell phone. We used my cell to phone the office for the keys but no one could come. We walked back to her office to get the keys. I ended up buying the flat she was showing me 🙂 but never at any stage did she actually apologize for keeping me waiting and not calling me. I only got an explanation “the previous RdV took more time than expected” (it was also a sale). Fortunately, I did not let any of this rile me and the agent was otherwise very pleasant and efficient!

  6. “navré” is widely used, but less often than désolé because very deeper (sad).

    At the theater:
    “Je suis désolé, il n’ y a plus de place”. Sorry.
    “Je suis navré de n’avoir pu assister à votre spectacle car j’ai eu un empêchement de dernière minute”. Sad, sincerely sad… If je suis “désolé”, OK, mais on s’en f..t un peu.
    Yes, “navré” is more sincère, thus serious.

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