Terminology – 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.


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3 thoughts on “Terminology – Origin of the word pétanque

  1. Very well done site with many side subjects that can be investigated. What a wonderful ‘ride’ from just looking up Pastis.

  2. i just learnt that the greek verb to throw is PETAO or he throws PETAEI. Now I thought that this might be where the word petanque stemmed from. But it might as well be a coincidence?!

  3. Hi Eusebio… A coincidence, I think. 🙂
    There is a Greek connection, but in another way. Latin and (ancient) Greek were both descended from Indo-European, and there are many similarities between the languages. For example “god” in Latin is “deus”, and in Greek “theos”. The “ped” in “ped tanca” is a word in a language descended from Latin. In Latin, “foot” was “ped”. In Greek, it was “pous” or “poda”.

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