Some handy French words

Last summer I had occasion to play with a new French friend. We usually played on natural terrains, and I found that I had to learn several words in order to be able to talk about our games.

The words weren’t specialized petanque terms. They were just ordinary French words that I needed to know in order to be able to talk about the conditions of the terrain.

Il y a une pente.” — “There is a slope.” There is a place on the terrain where the ground has a slope, which is why your boule didn’t roll straight.

Il y a des cailloux.” — “There are stones” (on the terrain). That’s why that boule took a weird bounce. It hit un caillou.

Le sol est meuble.” — “The ground is loose (or soft).” That’s why that boule didn’t roll as far as you expected it to. It got bogged down in that soft patch.

Terminology – Origin of the words “jack”, “cochonnet”, “bouchon”

In English we usually refer to the petanque target ball as “the jack”, although you may occasionally hear it called “the pig” or “the cosh”. Similarly, in French there are several different ways to refer to the jack. The FIPJP rules call it le but (“the target” or “the goal”). Players in Paris may call it le cochonnet (“the piglet”). Players in the Midi call it garri, or le petit or le pitionnet (the little one). Players in Provençe call it le bouchon, and so do most TV comentators. The term bouchon is the diminutive form of the Provençal word bocha or bocho— “ball”— so in Provençal a bouchon is a little ball. Note that Provençal and French are not the same language. It is purely coincidental that the French word bouchon means “stopper” (as in a bottle stopper: bouchon de bouteille) or a traffic jam (bouchon de circulation, bouchon sur la route).

The English word “jack” can be traced back to the Latin Jacobus, “little Jacob”. In Old French Jacobus evolved into Jacques, with connotations of a male peasant or servant. In Middle English, jacques became jack and had a variety of shades of meaning implying maleness (a man or a male animal, like a jack ass [a female ass is a “jenny”]) and relative inferiority or smallness. So in English lawn bowls, the little target ball was the “jack-bowl” or simply the “jack”. William Shakespeare was a bowls player and a member of the Falcon Bowling Club in Pairswick.  Perhaps the first written use in English of the word “jack” to refer to the little wooden target ball is in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (circa 1610), when a character named Cloten laments, “Was there ever man had such luck! When I kissed the jack, upon an up-cast to be hit away.”

In Spanish, as in other languages, the word for the jack is simply “the little ball”. The balls are las bolas and the little ball is la bolita (female) or el boliche (male).

For the origins of other petanque terms see our posts in the petanque terminology category.

Thanks to Jac Verheul and his Facebook group La Fabuleuse Histoire de la Pétanque for confirming the etymology of bouchon. For more information on the history of English lawn bowling, see John P. Monro, Bowls Encyclopaedia, and James Masters' history of bowls games.  But ignore Masters' incorrect etymology of "jack-rabbit". Jack rabbits are in fact quite large (for rabbits).  A jack rabbit is not a "small rabbit"; is a "jackass rabbit", a rabbit with big ears, like a jackass (a male ass). Other sources on the history of bowls can be found HERE and HERE.  The earliest surviving bowling green in England is Southampton Old Bowling Green, first used in 1299.


Terminology – Origin of the word pétanque

pétanque — feet planted (firmly on the ground)

Q: What is the origin of the word “pétanque” (French) or “petanca” (Spanish)?

A: Two Occitan words meaning “feet” and “planted” were transliterated into French and then collapsed into the single French word “pétanque”.

Occitan (pronounced oksitan) is the old pre-French language of Provençe. 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”, “pedestrian”, and “podiatrist”.

As I say, we know that two Occitan words were run together to create the word pétanque. The first word was pès or pés which meant “feet”. The second word was something like tanca, tanco, tancats, tanqués. Some sources say that this word meant “together” or “tied together” while others say that it meant “planted”, “fixed”, or “anchored”. A definitive answer can be found in a Petanque America blog entry by Philippe Boets. Here is my lightly edited copy of that post.

Feet fixed or together?

The May, 2009 issue of 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”. 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!”

So the bottom line is that the ultimate origin of the word “petanque” is the Occitan words “pés tanca” which mean, basically, “feet planted (firmly on the ground)”.


Never pick up another player’s boules

Here’s a tip for new players.

At the end of a mène, new players will often pick up boules belonging to other players and hand the boules to their owners. They do it out of a desire to be helpful. But— here’s the tip— don’t do it. Never pick up another player’s boules.
There are two reasons.

The first reason is that, although the other players realize that you’re trying to be helpful, the truth is that you’re not actually helping. For a brief moment, while the other player is trying to find his boules on the ground, you are actually preventing him from finding his boules. And at the same time you’re neglecting your responsibility to pick up your own boules as quickly as possible. So what you should do is concentrate on picking up your own boules as quickly as possible, and leave the other players to do the same. If you’re in a hurry, don’t even pick them up — just kick them out-of-bounds and pick them up later.

The second reason is that sometimes a player (it could be you!) mistakenly thinks that the mène is over and starts to pick up boules before all of the boules have been thrown. It’s an honest mistake, but it causes problems. According to Article 27 (FIPJP rules, 2016 version), “At the end of a mene, any boule picked up before the agreement of points is dead.” Some umpires will apply Article 27 quite literally— if a player from Team A picks up a boule belonging to Team B, the umpire will declare Team B’s boule to be dead. Which of course is grossly unfair. A player on one team shouldn’t be able to kill one of the other team’s boules at will. So such situations raise problems about how to interpret Article 27, which is a can of worms that you just don’t want to open. So don’t open it— Never pick up another player’s boules.

Finally, here’s another useful tip for new players. At the end of the mène, when it is time to pick up boules, wait a bit. Wait until you’re sure that all of the boules have been thrown and the score has been decided. As a new player, wait until you see more experienced players picking up their boules. Then start picking up your own boules. If you see another player’s boule that is way off in left field somewhere, don’t pick it up… instead, kick it toward where the other boules are clustered around the jack. That will help its owner to find it as he’s looking for it on the ground.