The origin of the word pétanque

pétanque (French) — feet planted (firmly on the ground)
pes_tanca_01

Nobody (well, almost nobody) really seems to know the origin of the word “pétanque” (French) or “petanca” (Spanish).

There are some things about the origin of the word that everyone agrees on. Specifically, that two Occitan words were translated or transliterated into French, and then collapsed into the single word “petanque”.

Occitan (pronounced something like oksitan) is the old pre-French dialect of Provençe and the south of France. Like French, Italian, and Spanish, Occitan is a “romance language” — a language descended from the language of the ancient Romans who occupied southern France and Spain for many centuries. Provençal is one of the six major dialects of Occitan. Occitan’s closest relative is Catalan, the language of Catalonia, the north-eastern Spanish province.

Occitan is not French, but the two languages are related through their Roman ancestry. In some cases, an Occitan word will resemble its French counterpart, and (thanks to the Norman Conquest) sometimes resemble a related English word. The Occitan word pèd (foot), for example, is related to the French word pied (foot) and such English words as “pedal” and “pedestrian”.


As I say, we know that two Occitan words were mashed together to create the word pétanque. Pretty much everybody agrees that the first word was “feet” — “pieds” in French — which (in Occitan) may have been

or
pèd or péd (foot?)
pès or pés (feet?)

There is a lot of disagreement about what the second word was, or might have been. Candidates include

tanca
tanco
tancats
tanqués

The real problem is what the second word meant. The candidates fall into two broad groups.

feet
planted …
fixed…
anchored, nailed, or staked …

      … to (or on) the ground.

feet
together
tied (together)

My own gut instinct is that the word should mean something like the English word “planted”, as in “feet planted firmly on the ground”.


Today I finally stumbled on the right words to plug into Google to get a trustworthy answer.

The answer comes, not surprisingly, from Philippe Boets of Petanque America. It was in a Petanque America blog entry from May 23, 2009. Here is that post, which I have edited very lightly. [Italicized text in square brackets] is mine.

Feet fixed or together?

In this month’s issue [not available online, unfortunately], France Today magazine lists a number of typical Provence terms, and of course “pétanque” is one of them. I’m so glad they use the term “feet fixed”, as opposed to “feet together”. Too many people think that your feet have to be glued together when you throw.

“tanca” is an old Provençal term meaning “blocked” or “fixed”. ["fixed" in the sense of "attached", not in the sense of "repaired"]

In todays’ Catalan, closely related to Provençal, the verb “tancar” is still used in that sense, and more generally as a term for “to close”. Because when you “block” an entrance or “fix” a window, you prevent further use, and actually “close” it.

It evolved into French as “tanquer” (“-er” being the common ending for a verb), also as a reflexive verb “se tanquer” meaning “to get stuck”, hence “to be stuck”.

The idea of standing still (or “being stuck”) when throwing a boule was quite revolutionary in 1907. For centuries folks had been running, jumping, you name it, when throwing boules. Imagine telling a javelin thrower today that there’s no more run-up.

A lot of people still think that “tanca” means “together”. No one cares how close together your feet are, as long as they’re immobile, and — when it comes to formal competitions — fit in the regulation 50cm (20″) diameter circle.

By the way, in the South of France, “tanqué” (the past participle of “tanquer”) is also used to describe someone who is well built, as a compliment: “C’est une femme bien tanquée!”


That settles the matter for me.

  • “Petanque” does NOT mean “feet together”.
  • It probably comes from the Occitan “pés tanca”, meaning “feet fixed (attached, anchored) (to the ground)”.
  • Or my personal favorite formulation — “feet planted (firmly on the ground)”.

pes_tanca_02

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.

Never pick up another player’s boules

Here’s a tip for new players.

I’ve noticed that at the end of a mène, new players will often pick up boules belonging to other players and hand the boules to their owners. New players do this out of friendliness and the desire to be helpful.

Here’s the tip — Don’t do it. Never pick up another player’s boules.
picking_up_boules
The other players do realize that you’re trying to be helpful. But the truth is, you’re not actually helping. For a brief moment, you’re causing other players (who are looking at the ground, trying to find their boules) not to be able to find their boules. And at the same time you’re neglecting your responsibility to pick up your own boules as quickly as possible.

What you should do is pick up your own boules as quickly as possible. If you’re in a hurry, don’t even take the time to pick them all up — just kick them out-of-bounds, where you can pick them up later.

There is a second reason why “Never pick up another player’s boules” is a good personal rule. It sometimes happens that a player (you, perhaps) mistakenly thinks that the mène is over and starts to pick up boules. It’s an honest mistake, but it is a mistake, and it causes problems. The problems are pretty minimal if you pick up one of your own (or your own team’s) boules. According to Article 26 the boule you’ve picked up is dead. You remove it from the terrain and play continues.

But if you pick up one of the opposing team’s boules, then you really have problems. You may not be able to put the boule back in its original location. Article 26 is so poorly written that it can be interpreted as saying that the boule that you picked up — the OTHER team’s boule — is dead. Which is clearly unfair. So… there may very well be confusion and debate about how to proceed.

So here’s some friendly advice. At the end of the mène, when it comes time to pick up boules, wait a bit. According to the rules, you should not begin picking up boules until the score has been decided. In friendly games people often immediately start to pick up boules that clearly have no chance of counting toward the score. But… wait a bit. Wait until you’re absolutely sure that all boules really have been thrown. Wait until you’re sure the score has been decided. As a new player, wait until you see more experienced players picking up their boules, before you start to pick up your own. And of course Never pick up another player’s boules.

Sometimes during pickup you will see a boule that is way off in left field somewhere. It’s OK to gently kick it toward where the other boules are clustered around the jack. That will make it easier for its owner to find it and retrieve it. But that’s about the most that you want to do with another player’s boule.

Nicknames

According to legend, Jules le Noir — who was the inspiration for the invention of petanque — was actually named Jules Hugues. “le Noir” was a nickname.

As Jon Bryant pointed out in an article called “Game of Life” (in France Magazine, original date unknown but probably July 2010) —

Nicknames used to be a big thing in boules. In most provençal villages, there would be a man known as Le Pendule (presumably for his regular arm swing) or Le Vieux (presumably as he’s been playing longer than anyone can remember) who was undefeated for over a decade and is still talked about by the locals.

Armand Vidal, who has written a dictionary of boule terms, laments the loss of the nickname. He writes that in the final of the Provençal tournament in 1909, all six men carried an official nickname — there was Le Blond, Petit Paul, Parpelet, Le Mecanicien. By 1931, only three of the six finalists had a recognizable sobriquet, and by 1976 only one finalist — so-called Bambi — was so distinguished.

Is the game getting more serious? Is too much money involved? Has the pace of life changed so much that there’s no impetus to label someone as anything but their own surname?

DictionnaireDeJeuDeBoules_ArmandVidalVidal’s book is Dictionnaire du jeu de boules: Tel qu’on le parle en Provence (Jeanne Laffitte, 1999) — toutes les expressions provençales du jeu de boules (boule provençale et pétanque), avec un index.


If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.

The birth of the FPUSA

The Federation of Petanque U.S.A. — the FPUSA — is the official governing body of the sport of pétanque in the United States. The FPUSA, as we know it today, was created in 1987 by the merger of two earlier organizations, the FPUSA and the APA.


Petanque is played in the United States wherever recent immigrants from France, particularly those from the south of France, have settled.

Following WWII there was an influx of French into the San Francisco Bay area, and petanque became a vehicle for social interaction at gatherings of the newly arrived. In 1959 the first petanque club in the United States, La Boule d’Or, was organized [in San Francisco] by Jean Bontemps, an importer from Provençe.  In 1960 La Boule d’Or was host to an international tournament on their home terrain in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Participants came from Quebec, France, and Tunisia.

In 1973 Bontemps moved to the Washington, D.C., area. There he met Alfred Levitt, a painter from New York. Levitt had been teaching art in St. Remy de Provençe, where he developed a love for petanque.

In New York, Levitt founded the club La Boule New Yorkaise, which met to play petanque in Washington Square. Levitt contacted the FIPJP and with their blessing founded the Federation of Petanque, U.S.A. (FPUSA) in 1973.

— article “Petanque” by Frank Pipal
Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States
ed. Kirsh, Harris, Nolte

 

The FPUSA was originally the creation of Alfred Levitt, a painter living in New York City. Levitt had discovered petanque while teaching art in the south of France. On his return to the United States, Levitt and his wife Gertrude founded the La Boule New Yorkaise (LBNY) petanque club in 1968. At first they played on the gravel foot-paths in Central Park, and later moved to the gravel paths in Washington Square Park, closer to Levitt’s home in Greenwich Village.

According to Frank Pipal (see above) Levitt met Jean Bontemps in Washington, DC, in 1973. Perhaps talking to Bontemps gave Levitt the idea of organizing the FPUSA. There are suspicions that Levitt lied to the FIPJP about the number and size of clubs in the USA in order to gain recognition from the FIPJP. In any event, he got it and the FPUSA came into existence in 1973, with Alfred Levitt as its first president. Eventually (by 1986) the FPUSA grew to 8 member clubs. Most clubs were located on the East Coast, but there were exceptions. On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Petanque Club was a member.

Alfred Levitt

Alfred Levitt, some time in the 1970s

About the same time, an organization calling itself the American Petanque Association (APA) was founded on the West Coast. At that time, the San Francisco Bay area had (as it still does today) a healthy population of French chefs, French winegrowers, and petanque clubs. In fact, petanque was better established around the Bay area than it was in New York City. Eventually (by 1986) the APA had 14 member clubs, concentrated on the West Coast. As with the FPUSA, there were exceptions. One of the APA member clubs was the National Capital Club de Petanque (NCCdP) in Washington DC.


For a number of years the two organizations existed side-by-side. The APA did better than the FPUSA, and periodically sought recognition from the FIPJP. But the APA could never get official recognition from the FIPJP, which did not want to recognize two national petanque federations in the United States. That meant that during this period the APA wanted — but could never get — access for its members to international FIPJP championships.

There was interest on the part of the APA in merging with the FPUSA. But nothing ever came of it, primarily because of the prickly personality of Alfred Levitt. Levitt had an irritating, authoritarian, and aggressive personality, and apparently antagonized almost everyone he dealt with. The West Coast APA members found the New York-based Levitt too difficult to deal with, so they simply avoided him. The two organizations continued their separate existences.

Levitt was almost 90 years old, but had no plans to retire. Eventually, in 1985, he was forced out as president of the FPUSA. His successor as president of the FPUSA was Hans Jepson, also of La Boule New Yorkaise.

Bob Morrison, December 2013

Bob Morrison, December 2013

The end of the Levitt regime reopened the possibility for negotiations between the APA and the FPUSA. In 1986, Robert Morrison (of the National Capital Club de Petanque, in Washington DC, a member club of the APA) got on a train and went up to New York City to meet with Jepson. Morrison remembers the negotiations as being almost a non-event. He proposed that the APA clubs merge with the FPUSA, and Jepson said “OK” and that was about it.

At the time, the FPUSA was the weaker of the two organizations, but it was the one with FIPJP recognition, so the APA disappeared and the new organization was known as the FPUSA. Jepson served as president pro tem of the new organization, until elections could be held early in 1987. Joseph Ardagna of Club de Petanque of Portsmouth, Virginia was elected as the first president of the new FPUSA.

When the two organizations agreed to merge, Bob Morrison and Joe Acciardi began work on organizing a nation-wide tournament to be called the Championnat International de Petanque U.S.A.. Morrison financed the event out of his own pocket. The Championnat took place on the weekend before Bastille Day, 1987, on the National Mall in Washington D.C. It provided an opportunity for the players of the old APA and the old FPUSA to meet and play against each other, and against Canadian and European teams. It was a great success. Henri Bernard, then-president of the FIPJP, was in attendance, along with 50 triples teams from the US, Canada, France, and Switzerland.

It must have been a great kick-off party for the new national organization. Here are some pictures.


About the sources

Information on this topic is difficult to find, often incomplete, and not always reliable. Some of the information in this article was obtained from personal discussions with Bob Morrison, of the National Capitol Club de Petanque, and Yngve Biltsted, of the Los Angeles Petanque Club. See also the Historic Issue of the Los Angeles Petanque Club newsletter, and the story by Frank Pipal on page five of the FPUSA Annual for 2012-2013. Photos of the 1987 tournament on the mall are courtesy of web site Jacques Biaggini, formerly of the La Joyeuse Boule club in Maryland.

The photo of Alfred Levitt is courtesy of Valérie Freschet’s excellent article on petanque in New York City, in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore. Alfred Levitt died in New York City in 2000, at the age of 105.


If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.

The Mondial des Volcans

poster_MondialDesVolcans_2014Today, July 31, 2014, is the opening day of the annual Mondial des Volcans.

Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. A little over a year ago, it didn’t exist. The very first Mondial des Volcans took place just a year ago, and today’s Mondial is only the second to be held.


Located a little south-of-center in France is the Massif Central, an area of high plateau and dormant volcanic mountains. This is the Auvergne region. One of the biggest cities in Auvergne is the capital of the Puy-de-Dôme prefecture, Clermont-Ferrand. Clermont-Ferrand is famous for, among other things, the chain of volcanoes, the Chaîne des Puys, surrounding it.

Fabrice_BoucheFabrice Bouche was born near Clermont-Ferrand in 1962 (he’s now 52). He loved sports and as a young man naturally found his way into football. Later he discovered boule lyonnaise and then petanque. He served as chairman of the Puy-de-Dôme Committee (of the FFPJP presumably) from 1998 until 2008, during which time he organized several major tournaments in Clermont-Ferrand and elsewhere. At some point he founded and became president of a new petanque club, Clermont Pétanque Auvergne. In 2013, on behalf of Clermont Pétanque Auvergne, he organized the first Mondial des Volcans, named after the volcanoes for which the region is famous.

Bouche has a grand vision for the Mondial. As he writes on one of the event’s web pages:

Today there is “La Marseillaise” in early July, the Mondial de Millau the week of August 15. And there will be the Mondial des Volcans the first week of August.

William Dauphant, a talented young French player and one of the sponsors of the Mondial, speaks of an “initiative to create a third event in the French boulistique landscape.” A grand vision indeed.


My subjective impression is that the Mondial des Volcans might have a vibe a bit like the Petanque America Open. It is (or claims to be, see below) an open tournament. And the videos seem to show players of all skill levels, with a sprinkling of really world-class players.

  • First of all, it is open to the public, licensed by the FFPJP or not.
  • Unlike the Petanque America Open, but like most French tournaments, it is single-elimination.
  • It is a lot bigger than the Petanque America Open, because in France there are a lot more players. They say they are expecting around 5000 players on 4 days.
  • If you are an “occasional player” (i.e. not a member of the FFPJP), you can buy a day license (une licence à la journée) on-site for 15 euros. A medical certificate will be provided free by the Mondial’s doctor. Is this what they mean by “open”? “If you’re not a member, we’ll let you join for one day”?
  • There seem to be four or five different tournaments: singles, doubles, women’s doubles, veteran’s doubles, and men’s triples.

Apparently there are seven venues, the most noticeable being indoor on the basketball court of the city’s Maison des Sports, and outdoor at the Place des Bughes.MondialDesVolcans_2013_outdoor_venuePhoto by Jacpetanque

It is hard to know what to expect from the Mondial. On the one hand, Fabrice Bouche seems to be a born organizer with a long history of organizing successful large-scale tournaments. On the other hand, his stated ambition of soon becoming the equal of Marseille and Millau seems absurd. And then there are remarks that he made last month to InfoMagazine. Apparently he wasn’t satisfied with the 2013 Mondial.

We lacked the teams. (Il nous a manqué des équipes.) This year, I’m more confident because I am less euphoric. We’ve tightened things up. But things are clear: if it doesn’t work this time, I’ll move on.

So I guess we can only wait and see. If there is a 2015 Mondial des Volcans… well, perhaps we might really be seeing the beginnings of “a third event in the French boulistique landscape”.


Some links
Note that if you run a web page through Google Translate, “Fabrice Bouche” becomes “Fabrice Mouth”.

  1. The Mondial des Volcans web site
  2. Mondial des Volcans page on Facebook
  3. Video of a interview with Bouche, apparently given earlier today at the event
  4. Nice pictures of the 2013 event by Jacpetanque (Jac Verheul).
  5. YouTube video of the 2013 event
  6. Another short video of the 2013 event
  7. InfoMagazine story from 2013, about the first Mondial des Volcans
  8. InfoMagazine story about Fabrice Bouche, with some biographical information.

Tournament software for PCs

Recently I played (for the first time) in a couple of tournaments. For both tournaments, the tournament organization (deciding which team plays which team, on which piste, for each round of the tournament — and then deciding who the winners were) was done using printed paper forms.

My impression was that using paper forms to organize a tournament can be quite easy, or quite difficult, depending on what kind of tournament system is being used, and how many teams and pistes are in play. And as a computer programmer I could see that such tournament organization tasks are ideal candidates for automation. The rules are clearly defined. The calculations can sometimes be challenging for a human, but a computer can do them quickly and without mistake. And in our Web-connected age, electronic data exchange would be possible and easy, if that might be something that one wanted.

So I began wondering what kinds of software might be available for organizing petanque tournaments. I went to Google and started looking.

screenshot_SPORT_tournament_softwareThe bottom line is that there is only one really high-quality commercial product. It is called SPORT and is available from a German firm. Their URL (web page) is www.sport-software.de. SPORT is designed to handle tournaments in different formats (round robin, single elimination, double elimination, Swiss system, etc.) and in several different sports. It supports several different languages, including French and English.

As of July 2014, the list price is 80€. The interesting thing is that the FIPJP itself uses SPORT for the World Championships, and has negotiated an arrangement with the vendor for a 50% price discount.  40€ is quite a reasonable price. According to the FIPJP web site, the way to get the discount is to place the order for SPORT through a national federation, which for American clubs of course means ordering it through the FPUSA. I think that means ordering it through the FPUSA National Sport Director — currently Ernesto Santos.

The software is written in Microsoft Visual C++ and runs on Windows. That means that SPORT should be able to run on any laptop running Windows. So it should be easy to bring a laptop running SPORT down to the tournament location.


Updated July 19, 2014

After my original post, I began thinking. The more I thought, the more it seemed to me that there must be other good tournament organization packages available, besides SPORT. So I Googled “tournament organization software” and got a lot of hits. Here are the ones that I thought looked most interesting.

  1. TioPro (free)
  2. Tournament Planner (€150)
  3. Tournament Time ($180 annual license)

Of the three, TioPro most impressed me. It seems to be genuinely free, not just a free trial. It has a good, clean, easy-to-use user interface. It has a LOT of features — I think it probably has all of the features that anyone would want for a petanque tournament. It seems to be actively maintained and developed, with good support via an online Linux-style forum. And there is a very impressive list of video tutorials that are hosted on YouTube — I watched THIS and THIS.

One thing that impressed me was that TioPro correctly handles the organization of the consolante in a double-elimination tournament. Here is a screenshot from one of the YouTube tutorials. I’ve added a red arrow to the screenshot to show how TioPro automatically (and correctly) moves losers from the concours to the consolante. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)
Click to see larger image


In a very helpful comment (see below) Uzero Metreize pointed out that, if you’re going to be running a tournament from a laptop, you really need an AC electrical outlet. That’s true.

Uzero also suggested that even with a laptop, you still need a printer, so all of the players can follow the progress of the tournament. “Imagine,” he says, “running a tournament like the Amelia Island Open, with 128 teams gathered around the computer.” Clearly, that wouldn’t work.

But still, there might be a non-paper alternative.

The last time I was at Amelia, people gathered around a big paper chart pinned to a bulletin board. The paper chart wasn’t much bigger than a medium-sized flat-screen TV. So…

Suppose we connected a large flat-screen TV to the laptop (easy to do). All you would need would be the TV (not that expensive, really) and an HDMI cable. And suppose we took the paper chart down from the bulletin board, and replaced it with the TV screen displaying the chart.

Even better would be to completely bypass the bulletin board and the TV. If the laptop running the tournament software had internet connectivity, updated tournament information could be constantly uploaded to the tournament web site in real time. On the tournament web site, intermediate results could be viewed by anybody with a smartphone. TioPro in fact already does this. It has built-in Twitter support, making it easy to tweet tournament results as they come in.

Imagine. You don’t even need to go anywhere near the bulletin board. You can go back to your hotel after your last game of the day, have a nice dinner, and then before going to bed check the web site to see who you’ll be playing the next day!

I’ve never been to Marseilles or to the World Championships. But they surely must have some kind of set-up like this. With such big tournaments, there is no way that they’re going to be constantly distributing paper copies of updated results and standings throughout the tournament.


The Master considers offense and defense

One evening, after a hard-fought tournament, the pastis was flowing and conversation turned to the topic of pointing vs. shooting. We debated “Which is more important – pointing or shooting?” and “Which is more difficult?” and so on.

Eventually we talked ourselves out. The Master, who had said nothing during the debate, spoke slowly and thoughtfully…

I’m surprised that no one brought up the most fundamental fact about pointing and shooting. Namely, that one is offense and the other is defense.

In soccer, the striker is offense. The goalie is defense. In petanque, the shooter seems (like the striker) to be violent and aggressive. But in petanque, the shooter is not the offense. The shooter is the defense.

The job of the pointer is to go on the offensive, to gain the point. The job of the shooter is to defend the point by shooting boules that threaten the point.

A good pointer puts the opposing team on the defensive. By pointing well, a pointer forces the opposition to expend all of their boules trying to out-point him, or forces the opposition shooter to expend boules trying to shoot him. If the opposing team succeeds in shooting the pointer’s boule, they haven’t gained anything. They have merely averted a threat. As soon as the pointer points his next boule, the opposition is back on the defensive.

The one exception is the carreau. It is only when you understand pointing and shooting as offense and defense that you understand the significance of a carreau. A carreau is both defense and offense. It removes an opposition threat and simultaneously creates a new threat of its own. In a carreau, the thrown boule is two boules in one. A carreau is like giving a team an extra boule.

A team cannot win if it cannot shoot and defend itself from opposition points. And it cannot win if it cannot point well enought to score its own points. To win, it needs both offense and defense. It must point AND shoot. Neither can be more important than the other. Both are NECESSARY.

Still … I sometimes think that pointers don’t get the respect that they deserve. Perhaps it is because even the newest beginner can point. ANYBODY CAN POINT, people think. LET THE NEW PLAYER PLAY FIRST, they think, AND THEN OUR SHOOTER WILL CLEAN UP AFTER HIM. I wonder if people would think that way if they saw the pointer as he really is — the tip of the spear, the point of the battering ram, the points-scoring machine for their team. Their offensive line.

I remember playing a team of pointers once. They would point really well. And we’d shoot them, most of the time successfully. But they would always come back with another excellent pointing throw. Eventually, despite our shooting, they simply out-pointed us. It was rather an un-nerving experience…

The ice tinkled faintly in his glass as he drained the last of his pastis.