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French letter

Posted by Bob on August 02, 2000

In Reply to: French letter posted by ESC on July 27, 2000

: : Where does the English phrase "french letter" (meaning a condom) come from - where was it first used and why?

: From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Fact on File, New York, 1997):

: "FRENCH - The prejudice that anything French is wicked, sexual, and decadent has let Frenchmen in for more than their fair share of abuse in English. Many such expressions date back to 1730-1820, the height of Anglo-French enmity, but some are current and others go back even further."

: "Under CONDUM, it says ".Dr. Conton (a London doctor in the court of Charles II) probably did improve upon the condom, but an equally reliable source traces the word derivation to a Colonel Condum of Britain's Royal Guards. This authority notes that the colonel devised the 'French letter' early in the mid-17th century to protect his troops from the French. The French, chauvinistic, too, called 'condoms' English letters."

But why "letter"? I understand the nationalistic antagonism, but the choice of the word "letter" is still a mystery to me. Letter as in message, or letter of the alphabet or some other kind of letter? What's the connection?