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.


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