Hey, it's a free country
October 26, 2007 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Do other non-U.S. countries/cultures use the phrase "It's a free country?"

To my best knownledge, this phrase is used in a few ways, and of course Simpsons quotes can be used as examples:

1. To say "yes" to a simple request.

Skinner: Mind if I sit down?
Krabappel: It's a free country.

2. To say that an impossible goal can be achieved.

Dr. Nick: With my diet, you can eat all you want, any time you want.
Marge: And you lose weight?
Dr. Nick: Uh, you might. It's a free country!

3. To state why a person is allowed to do anything they want to.

Lisa: Bart, just get outta here.
Bart: Hey: it's a free country. _You_ get out.

This phrase seems to be used often in the United States (it's shown up a few times on AskMe) but I'm not sure if it's used in other "free" countries. Is there a similar phrase in other nations? I was wondering if the idea of relating essential rights and liberties to trivial things is a uniquely American phenomenon.

So answer if you want to. Or don't. It's a free country.
posted by ALongDecember to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's used in the UK.
posted by biffa at 8:49 AM on October 26, 2007

It's used in Sweden, too.
posted by martinrebas at 8:52 AM on October 26, 2007

In pretty much the same ways?
posted by ALongDecember at 8:56 AM on October 26, 2007

I could imagine it being used in German but it's not nearly as common. It's definitely not commonly used in the first sense. Anyway, I don't think your second use of the phrase exists outside that joke, in fact I think that strange use of the phrase is part of the joke. I've never heard anyone say, e.g., "do you think I'll make the Olympic team", "possibly, it's a free country".
posted by creasy boy at 8:57 AM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I use it all the time in Dutch, at least in the first and third senses. I might be an outlier.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:04 AM on October 26, 2007

In the UK, yes. Obviously we invented the phrase.
posted by zemblamatic at 9:04 AM on October 26, 2007

In pretty much the same ways?

Yes, although I'd say that there's only one way: #3. Your #1 fits neatly under #3, and as creasy boy points out, #2 isn't actually used.
posted by martinrebas at 9:05 AM on October 26, 2007

48.000 Google hits for Dutch might suggest not ubiquity but acceptance nonetheless.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:10 AM on October 26, 2007

I was wondering if the idea of relating essential rights and liberties to trivial things is a uniquely American phenomenon.

You might be interested in Rights Talk by Mary Ann Glendon.
posted by danb at 9:10 AM on October 26, 2007

Sense 1 is used in Canada. And sort of in sense 3; more in the case someone is planning to do something foolish and you can't or don't want to convince them to act otherwise.
posted by Mitheral at 9:17 AM on October 26, 2007

It's used in New Zealand.
posted by gaspode at 9:19 AM on October 26, 2007

I would say that in Sweden the phrase is often used in situations where permission is asked for but the person on the receiving end doesn't need to give it.

It's a more polite way of answering stupid questions like "Is it ok for me to put my note up on the public notice board?" or "Is it ok for me to only like blond girls?" than just just telling the person that they are dumbasses and they can do whatever they like.

Many google hits for the Swedish phrase (about 8000) are related to discussions like "You would seriously like to have sex with Jacko!? Go ahead, it's a free country" implying that if the country was not free you wouldn't be allowed to be so criminally stupid.
posted by uandt at 9:22 AM on October 26, 2007

I heard it used in the UK in Snatch (I'm pretty sure).

I heard it used in Canada in maybe Bowling for Columbine (I'm less sure).
posted by thejoshu at 9:22 AM on October 26, 2007

Used in the UK.

My dad told me that it was to distinguish between legal systems where:

1) nothing is punishable by law unless it's actually illegal;

2) nothing is permissible unless actually licensed by law.

He said many European countries we think of as free countries don't actually fit the legal bill.

He gave the example of France, as epitomized by Peter Sellers as Jacques Clouseau getting continually arrested for not having a license for his monkey, baloon selling, whatever...

He claimed that France didn't qualify as a "free country" under its legal system.

My dad wasn't a lawyer.

I can't find any supporting citations.

But perhaps it does have a specific legal meaning.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:36 AM on October 26, 2007

Not quite answering the question, but I don't think I've ever heard the expression used even within the US with the second meaning you have listed (outside of that one joke on The Simpsons, obviously).
posted by mjgrady at 10:01 AM on October 26, 2007

blue_wardrobe: is it your father's contention that French law consists not of a list of things you can't do, but of a list of those things you can do?

You do understand that this list would be infinite?
posted by creasy boy at 10:02 AM on October 26, 2007

Canada: Yes.

(It seems to me that all those examples are the same, though. #2 and #3 are just ironic uses of #1.)
posted by Reggie Digest at 10:06 AM on October 26, 2007

Australia - yes
posted by jannw at 10:07 AM on October 26, 2007

My French is wanting but "c'est un pays libre" comes up 24,000 times and it seems to be a throw-away phrase used at the beginning or end of a sentence, i.e. not just used in actual political discourse.
posted by creasy boy at 10:08 AM on October 26, 2007

@creasy boy: yes, my Dad's contention was that under French law, only that which was permitted by law guaranteed you legal protection.

Yes, such a list would be infinited, but he contended that while you *could* do other things, you would be at legal risk (criminally).

Rather like the risk of being subjected to a civil suit in our system, but for criminal aspects too.

I'm not saying he was right. The conversation was 25 years ago or so. I may have misremembered some of it, but if this concept rings a bell or two, I'd be interested to know more.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 10:11 AM on October 26, 2007

Funny, I haven't heard anyone use that term in the United Sates in years.
posted by mullingitover at 10:15 AM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

it's funny, in the US you have the phrase, "Life, Liberty and the Persuit of Happiness" to sum up the right of a free man in America.

in Canada, we have, "Peace, Order and Good Government."

in the US, you have the first ammendment.

in Canada, there are prohibitions on certain forms of speech.

so, when a Canadian says, "it's a free country," they're (unintentionally) referring to a different kind of freedom.
posted by klanawa at 10:31 AM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with everyone else that "2. To say that an impossible goal can be achieved" is not actually used.
posted by languagehat at 11:53 AM on October 26, 2007

blue_wardrobe: perhaps your dad was thinking of inquisitorial justice systems, like France's, wherein judges can collude with criminal investigations? Because this is very un-Magna-Carta-ish, it's often reduced too far to "Guilty until proven innocent."
posted by jbrjake at 12:17 PM on October 26, 2007

I wonder if my personal use of #2 is shaped by the Simpsons, because I can personally imagine saying:

"Hey, I'm going to run a marathon next week [even though I'm out of breath when climbing stairs.]"
"Hey, it's a free country," says my skeptical girlfriend.

And I'm not sure if this use on AskMe fits my #2 definition, or maybe I'm trying too hard. I imagine the phrase as being sarcastic, when zpousman seems to be sincere in that quote.

But even the 'hat disagrees, so maybe it's just me. Thanks for the answers so far everyone, I would have never thought it exists in other languages.
posted by ALongDecember at 12:35 PM on October 26, 2007

I disagree with your taxonomy of senses of the phrase. (I think using Simpsons quotes for this is dicey because such quotes are designed specifically to tweak parts of the normal usage.)

I think it's only ever used to mean "you are permitted to do that". But with one of these two implications:
1. I don't give a damn whether you do that; why are you asking for permission? ("Be my guest" has a similar feeling) )OR
2. I think that's a terrible idea, but you're allowed to make any mistake you like. ("It's your funeral" and other phrases have a similar connotation)

Agree that #2 is a joke and not a form that's actually used. Agreed that 1 and 3 are effectively the same thing.

I'm from the US and have always assumed that this phrase arose from the implicit contrast between "the free world" and totalitarian/communist states of the middle 20th century. "The secret police won't arrest you if you do x here, so go ahead and do it - you're allowed. It's a free country."

As an aside:
I don't think this phrase comes from an implicit contrast with the French system, and I don't think the description of the French system above is quite accurate (but IANAFL). But French law (a "civil law" system) and English-style common law-based systems are indeed quite different -- here's a quick snip from the Wikipedia article on the subject, which fits with my very basic understanding of the contrast:
Civil law is primarily contrasted against common law, which is the legal system developed among Anglo-Saxon people, especially in Britain.

The original difference is that, historically, common law was law developed by custom, beginning before there were any written laws and continuing to be applied by courts after there were written laws, too, whereas civil law developed out of the Roman law of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law).

...the difference between civil law and common law lies not just in the mere fact of codification, but in the methodological approach to codes and statutes. In civil law countries, legislation is seen as the primary source of law. By default, courts thus base their judgments on the provisions of codes and statutes, from which solutions in particular cases are to be derived. Courts thus have to reason extensively on the basis of general rules and principles of the code, often drawing analogies from statutory provisions to fill lacunae and to achieve coherence. By contrast, in the common law system, cases are the primary source of law, while statutes are only seen as incursions into the common law and thus interpreted narrowly.

The underlying principle of separation of powers is seen somewhat differently in civil law and common law countries. In some common law countries, especially the United States, judges are seen as balancing the power of the other branches of government. By contrast, the original idea of separation of powers in France was to assign different roles to legislation and to judges, with the latter only applying the law (the judge as la bouche de la loi; 'the mouth of the law'). This translates into the fact that many civil law jurisdictions reject the formalistic notion of binding precedent (although paying due consideration to settled case-law).
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:58 PM on October 26, 2007

Simple googling reveals it appears in Uncle Tom's Cabin, heavily ironised of course. Not certain if first usage in print, but certainly pre-dates much of the speculation above.
posted by A189Nut at 1:04 PM on October 26, 2007

Wow - I retract my speculation.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:19 PM on October 26, 2007

See here for more. UTC = 1852
posted by A189Nut at 2:13 PM on October 26, 2007

Not said in the former Yugoslavia. I've obviously heard it a lot in America, but disproportionately from schoolkids being snotty.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:13 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Funny enough, what blue_wardrobe is saying about French law is the same as was told to me about German and Swiss law. Something like "Anything not allowed by law is forbidden." Not that I'm saying that is accurate.
posted by Goofyy at 9:22 AM on October 29, 2007

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