Simply, when one is outraged beyond all other words, when there is nothing left to do but put on your Frenchiest of accents, point your pointiest finger and cry, J'accuse!
It means "I accuse [you]" in the French
This is a half-storied work of public journalism, half Memetic Mutation
. It goes like this:
Once upon a time in France, a renowned writer named Emile Zola penned a scathing open letter to the President
(published in liberal publisher Georges Clemenceau's newspaper L'Aurore
on January 13, 1898 — that's it to the right) that accused the government of France's Third Republic of anti-Semitism and corruption in its handling of the Dreyfus Affair of 1894—in which an innocent French Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who just happened to be Jewish, was used as a scapegoat in an espionage case, when it was quite clear to everyone that he was guilty of nothing more than being Jewish. The letter pointed out the weakness of the evidence and several clear occurrences of judicial error and prejudice during Dreyfus' trial; for someone so prominent and respected as Zola to write something so harsh was a big deal, and for that Clemenceau (who loved picking political fights) set the sensationalist headline, in giant, bold letters: "J'Accuse...!
Naturally, the conservative French establishment was scandalized, and in retaliation Zola was rapidly charged with and convicted for libel and had to flee to England for a year, until the bureaucrats then in power were removed. Dreyfus had been sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island
; he appealed his case multiple times, but it was not until 1906, twelve years after his trial, that his conviction was actually annulled. And all this to cover the French government's collective ass because of the existence of a spy that the government couldn't afford to catch, out of embarrassment.
Even though Zola's letter itself is famous, the Stock Phrase
it has inspired is even more popular as a way to spice up an accusation with a little French
- In AA Pessimal's Hogswatchtime story Il se Passait au Nuit de Pere Porcher, DEATH is detained by the Klatchian Foreign Legion, who, whatver else they may forget, always remember a deserter. note . DEATH is arrested with the formula of "J'accuse!" and is court-martialled. But Discworld literal-mindedness takes over and the court goes off at a tangent concerning a soldier called Corporal Jack Hughes, Hughes the Booze from Third Batallion...
- J'Accuse: A French zombie movie released in the 1920s filled with as much political weight as can be. The Zombie Apocalypse is the sudden uprising of the French dead of WWI, coming back to condemn the guilty living who sent them to die. The whole film is an anti-war polemic, which the director convinced the army was going to be a propaganda flick, so they gave him real soldiers for actors - 80% of which died once they went back to the front.
- The Life of Émile Zola: Award-winning 1937 film about the Trope Namer and Zola's crusade on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. (The Translation Convention is in full effect here, so Zola's letter is printed as "I Accuse!".)
- The first Odd Thomas book contains a gag about how, while Odd is towing a dead body out of an apartment, he's trying to be quiet, except that he has to dump it over the railing. As he comes down the stairs, he guesses that no one heard him because no one runs at him yelling J'accuse!
- In Going Postal the hero Moist von Lipwig uses a technically complicated plot to replace a message used in a bet with his enemy Reacher Gilt to do a wonderful reveal of Reacher's entire plot and bring him and his minions down using this trope.
- 'Allo 'Allo: In an unusual subversion of the show's trope of using Just a Stupid Accent as a Translation Convention for whatever language is actually being spoken. Lt. Gruber relates a dream he had of Rene saying "J'accuse! J'accuse!" and responds "Who is this "Jack Hughes"?" (Gruber believes he killed Rene with a firing squad and the Rene currently in the show is Rene posing as his own twin brother also called Rene). At the end of the episode Rene gets stuck on a giant aerial rising out of a grave (they'd hidden a transmitter in Rene's crypt since it was empty) and Gruber sees this figure of Rene rising out of the grave (looking sheepish) and faints. Helga then says "Well at least he didn't mention this "Jack Hughes". Roll credits.
- On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon utters this phrase when some of Frank's cigarettes go missing, implying that he hasn't quit smoking. Turns out she ate them in her sleep.
- Dick once said it on 3rd Rock from the Sun.
- The cat in Sabrina the Teenage Witch
- On Doctor Who, Lady Cassandra does this when the Ninth Doctor seemingly discovers the culprit that was attempting to kill them all - because she's hoping he won't realize that she's the real culprit. He does.
- In The West Wing episode "The Indians in the Lobby", President Bartlet attempted to use this on his wife Abbey when he finds out it's her fault they were going to celebrate Thanksgiving in Camp David rather than their family farm in New Hampshire. It didn't work out so well, though:
Jed Bartlet: "J'accuse!"
Abbey Bartlet: "Oh, brother!"''
Jed Bartlet: "J'accuse, mon petit fromage!"
Abbey Bartlet: "You speak four languages. How come none of them is French?"
Jed: "Nothing's wrong with my French."
Abbey: You just called me "your little cheese."
Jed: (beat) "That's right!"
- Robert says this to Raymond in an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Marie, who's taking French classes, says "Ooh! Ray! He's accusing you!"
- In Glee Stoner Brett yells this during a Brittany Spears performance by the New Directions.
- Lester lets one fly in a final season episode of Chuck after discovering he and Jeff have been Locked Out of the Loop regarding Chuck's double life.
- Doonesbury once had a drug sniffing dog point at Zonker and say "J'accuse!".
- Shadow Raiders: An episode title. The episode deals with the trial of a military officer that threatens society itself, no less.
- Futurama: Zoidberg says this once, the joke being that he's not French but Ambiguously Jewish.
- On one episode of The Simpsons, Lisa complained about her French teacher not actually speaking French. "J'accuse!" "...What the hell is this broad talkin' about?"
- King of the Hill: Gilbert says it to Bill while ranting about his plan to sell the family's barbecue sauce.