Origins of the Expression Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense

Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense on a passport

 John Harper/Getty Images

"Honi soit qui mal y pense" are French words that you'll find on Britain's royal coat of arms, on the cover of British passports, in British courtrooms and elsewhere of note. But why does this Middle French expression appear in weighty official uses in Britain? 

Origins of 'Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense'

These words were first uttered by England's King Edward III in the 14th century. At that time, he reigned over a part of France, and the language spoken at the English court, among the aristocracy and clergy, and in courts of law was Norman French, as it had been since the time of William the Conqueror of Normandy, starting in 1066.

While the ruling classes spoke Norman French then, the peasants, who comprised the majority of the population, continued to speak English. French eventually fell out of use for reasons of practicality, and by the middle of the 15th century, English again ascended to the throne, so to speak, replacing French in British centers of power. 

In 1348 or so, Britain's King Edward III founded the Chivalric Order of the Garter, which today is the highest order of chivalry and the third most prestigious honor awarded in Britain. It is not known with certainty why this name was chosen for the order. According to historian Elias Ashmole, the Garter is founded on the idea that as King Edward III prepared for the Battle of Crécy during the Hundred Years War, he gave "forth his own garter as the signal." Thanks to Edward's introduction of the deadly longbow, the well equipped British army proceeded to vanquish an army of thousands of knights under French King Philip VI in this decisive battle in Normandy.

Another theory suggests a totally different and rather fun story: King Edward III was dancing with Joan of Kent, his first cousin, and daughter-in-law. Her garter slipped down to her ankle, causing people around her to mock her.

In an act of chivalry, Edward placed the garter around his own leg saying, in Middle French, "Honi soit qui mal y pense. Tel qui s'en rit aujourd'hui, s'honorera de la porter, car ce ruban sera mis en tel honneur que les railleurs le chercheront avec empressement." ("Shame on him who thinks evil of it. Those who laugh at this today will be proud to wear it tomorrow because this band will be worn with such honor that those mocking (now) will be looking for it with much eagerness.") 

Meaning of 'Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense'

Nowadays, this expression could be used to say, "Honte à celui qui y voit du mal," or "Shame on the one who sees something bad [or evil] in it." 

  • "Je danse souvent avec Juliette... Mais c'est ma cousine, et il n'y a rien entre nous: Honi soit qui mal y pense!"
  • "I often dance with Juliette. But she is my cousin, and there is nothing between us: Shame on the one sees something bad in it!"

Spelling variations

Honi comes from the Middle French verb honir, which means to shame, disgrace, dishonor. It is never used today. Honi is sometimes spelled honni with two n's. Both are pronounced like honey.