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 half a storied work of public journalism, half Memetic Mutation. It goes like this:
Once upon a time in France, a renowned writer named Émile Zola penned a scathing open letter to the President (published in liberal publisher Georges Clemenceau's newspaper L'Aurore on January 13, 1898) 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 a German espionage case (France had recently lost a war to Germany and despised them), when it was quite clear to everyone that the only thing that Dreyfus was guilty of was being Jewish and from the region of Alsace (which the Germans had taken from France as part of the peace settlement). The letter pointed out the weakness of the evidence and several clear occurrences of judicial error and prejudice during Dreyfus's trial, and formally named and accused scores of people of everything from incompetence to crimes against justice and humanity; 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 (which he had predicted he would be in the article, even citing the specific laws he would be charged with breaking) 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.
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.
- Scott Pilgrim: "It's French. - ed."
- The phrase was homaged, albeit in English, as the title of a Pre-Crisis Justice League of America story◊ about the investigation of the original Mister Terrific's murder.
- Doonesbury once had a drug-sniffing dog named Claude point at Zonker and say "J'accuse!".
- The Far Side had a panel where a live lobster bursts into a kitchen, points his claw at a chef cooking lobster, and shouts, "J'accuse!"
- And Pogo got in on it.
Churchy LaFemme: J'accuse!
Howland: Don't you call me no j'accuse!
- Played for Laughs in the Belgian comic Le Chat, with a letter from Zola starting with J'accuse in giant font and the rest of the letter reading "réception de votre lettre" (meaning "I acknowledge the letter you sent me"). Another showed Zola taking a bath in his J'accuzzi.
- One FoxTrot story had Jason lose his recorder after spending the previous week annoying everyone in his family with it. When he tells Andy that it's missing, Andy suggests that a "certain reptile" (referring to Jason's iguana, Quincy) might have taken it. Instead, Jason, being the Annoying Younger Sibling that he is, goes to Paige and tells her "J'accuse," which confuses her since she's never heard the term before. note
- In A.A. Pessimal's Hogswatchtime story Il se Passait au Nuit de Pere Porcher, DEATH is detained by the Klatchian Foreign Legion, who, whatever 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...
Films about the Trope Namer:
- 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!").
- There's also a 1958 film about Dreyfus, fittingly entitled I Accuse!, directed by and starring José Ferrer, along with Anton Walbrook and Viveca Lindfors.
- J'accuse is also the French title of the movie adaptation of An Officer and a Spy, which is also about the Dreyfus affair. It's from the point of view of the officer who defended Dreyfus this time around, Zola merely has one or two scenes.
- J Accuse: A French movie released in the 1920s filled with as much political weight as can be. The film is famous for its sudden uprising of the French dead of World War I, coming back to condemn the guilty living who sent them to die. The whole film is an anti-war pamphlet, which the director convinced the French army was going to be a propaganda flick, so they gave him real soldiers for actors — 80% of whom died once they went back to the front since it was filmed during the war.
- Joseph Göbbels himself commissioned a film by this title in 1941 as Nazi propaganda for euthanasia programs, about a doctor arrested for killing his wife to end her suffering from MS.
- Discworld: 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.
- 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!
- The historical novel An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus Affair, includes a scene where the protagonist (Marie-Georges Picquart) learns about the publishing of Zola's famous letter. The text includes long extracts of the letter.
- 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.
- '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.
- Lester lets one fly in Chuck's final season after discovering he and Jeff have been Locked Out of the Loop regarding Chuck's double life.
- Doctor Who: In "The End of the World", 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.
- 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 Lupin (2021): former Intrepid Reporter Fabienne Beriot owns a dog named J'accuse, which she's trained to start barking at the mentioning of the name Pellegrini.
- Glee: Stoner Brett yells this during a Britney Spears performance by the New Directions.
- One of the lesser (but still recurring) running gags on How I Met Your Mother, usually invoked by Ted.
- Modern Family: Cam says this after he discovers his husband was keeping his larger clothes in case his diet fails, specifically because it was more dramatic than other ways.
- The West Wing: In "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!
- Channel 4 had a semi-regular show in which notable people would make a not-at-all-balanced documentary about something they disliked, which was actually called J'Accuse!
- Sonic Youth released "J'accuse, Ted Hughes". It's not Just for Pun, that's a controversial English poet who developed a Hatedom after Sylvia Plath (whom Hughes had just recently divorced) killed herself.
- The Arthur music album Arthur's Really Rockin' Music Mix has the song "Fern's Detective Tango", which is based on the events of the episode "Binky Rules". In the song, Fern sings about the various reasons why certain characters couldn't have been responsible for the graffiti reading "BINKY RULES," before finally declaring, "Binky, j'accuse!"
- In Eternal Sonata, this is the name of one of the attacks of Fugue, one of the Big Bad Count Waltz's minions. Since Calling Your Attacks is fully in effect, you get to hear it its full glory.
Fugue: You peasants can never appreciate beauty of this kind. J'accuse!
- The Simpsons Hit & Run
Homer Simpson: C. Montgomery Burns! I know you're guilty! J'accuse! [Beat] Sir.
Mr. Burns: Fine, I'll admit it. I had Amelia Earhart's plane shot down. That hussy was getting too big for her jodhpurs.
- Guybrush lets out the line at one point in the fourth chapter of Tales of Monkey Island.
- The player can do this five times to oust a gang of bandits during a side quest in West of Loathing.
- Bad Machinery: A pointing-fingered "J'Accuse!" is something of a signature move for Charlotte "Lottie" Grote, sometimes accompanied by an Unsound Effect. Lottie even uses it as an called-out attack, like in a manga.
- Planet of Hats:
- Said by Spock in Space Seed.
- Used as an Unsound Effect when Kirk accuses Lazarus in "The Alternative Factor".
- Futurama: Zoidberg says this once, the joke being that he's not French but Ambiguously Jewish.
- King of the Hill: Gilbert, Bill's over-the-top, dandy Cajun cousin, screams at the top of his lungs when accusing Bill of selling out their family name to market a line of homemade barbeque sauces.
Gilbert: And what would you do with your streetwalker's gold, eh? Buy more of these... [reading a box from Bill's table] "Double-stuffed chocolate sandwich cookies?" J'accuse!
- The Magic School Bus: When the class takes a trip to the rainforest after the cocoa tree they gifted to Ms. Frizzle had its first crop of beans generously sum to a total of one, they meet Inspector 47, a rather haughty man with a French accent and nicely-tailored suit who is in charge of overseeing the section of rainforest Ms. Frizzle's tree is in. When they ask him what happened to the missing cocoa beans, Inspector 47 accuses Inspector 46 of being jealous of how neat and tidy his section of the forest and placing a curse on the trees, driving off in a jeep shouting, "J'accuse, Inspector 46! J'accuse!"
- The Owl House: Spoken by Jerbo when he and the other Detention Kids find out Luz had told her friends she thought she was “better than” detention.
- Shadow Raiders: An episode title. The episode deals with the trial of a military officer that threatens society itself, no less.
- The Simpsons: In "The President Wore Pearls", Lisa complains about her French teacher not actually speaking French. "J'accuse!" "...What the hell is this broad talkin' about?"
- South Park: The April Fools' Day episode "Terrance and Phillip in 'Not Without My Anus'", only to be sent up with a Chewbacca Defense.
- Skylanders Academy: In "Elementary, My Dear Eruptor", Hugo screams this and points at Jet-Vac when Eruptor deduces that Jet-Vac was the one eating Hugo's cookies.
- Prosecutor Gideon Hausner quoted "J'accuse!" (albeit translated) in his opening statement in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, "the architect of The Holocaust". Doubly appropriate since Eichmann was being tried in Israel for his crimes against humanity in general and the Jewish people in particular, especially innocent Jews who died and suffered for the "crime" of their ethnicity/religion like Dreyfus.
When I stand before you here, Judges of Israel, to lead the Prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards him who sits in the dock and cry: "I accuse." For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard. Therefore I will be their spokesman and in their name I will unfold the terrible indictment.