Terminology – Origin of the word “carreau”

I’ve often wondered about the origin of the word “carreau”.

In petanque, the word carreau refers to the perfect shot, when the thrown boule makes a direct hit on the target boule, knocking the target boule away and exactly taking its place.

Outside of petanque, in everyday French, le carreau means “the square”. It can also be used to refer to square things such as window panes and floor tiles. It can also by extension be used to refer to tiled floors and to floors in general. Laisser quelqu’un sur le carreau is to lay somebody out on the floor, to deck him.

AS_de_carreau_bouleCarreau can also refer to the diamonds in a deck of cards. Hence the name of the famous bronze boule from La Boule Intégrale, the AC — AS de carreau, Ace of diamonds.

Hence also the name of one of the designs in Obut’s Tatou line of leisure boules— the “Card Carreau”.

For a long time I could not make the connection between a square or a tile and a petanque carreau . Then I re-found the collection of Petanque Terminology that Jeff Widen (of the Detroit Petanque Club) had assembled.

The origin of the term is thought to have come from the fighting expression “rester carreau” – “to remain on the spot, to be laid out cold.” “Le carreau” means the “floor” (usually only applied to one that is either tiled or paved).

The idea, I take it, is that when you rester carreau (“stay on the floor”) you drop like a rock to the floor and stay there. Which is what a thrown petanque boule does when it makes a carreau.


Terminology – Origin of the word “jack”

The English word “jack” can be traced back to the Latin Jacobus, “little Jacob”. In Old French it evolved into Jacques, with connotations of an inferior male, a peasant, or a servant. In Middle English, jacques became jack. “Jack” slowly came to be used with different shades of meaning that variously suggested: male, inferior man, inferiority, relative smallness, something that supported something larger. So in English lawn bowls, the little target bowl was the “jack” or the “jack-bowl”.

Allegedly William Shakespeare was 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 1697 R. Pierce wrote “He had not strength to throw the Jack-Bowl half over the green”.

These references seem to come from John P. Monro, Bowls Encyclopaedia.  For more information on the history of bowling games, see James Masters’ history of bowls games.  But ignore his incorrect etymology of “jack-rabbit”. A jack rabbit is not a small rabbit.  It is a “jackass rabbit”, a rabbit with big ears, like a jackass. A “jack” ass is a male ass; a female ass is a “jenny”.

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)”.


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

Terminology – Boule devant, boule d’argent

The classic petanque maxim is

Boule devant, boule d’argent.

The French word “argent” can mean either “silver” or “money”. I agree with Rayond Ager that in this context, it should be translated as “money”. So the maxim roughly translates as

A boule in front is a money ball.

The expression “money ball” isn’t, I think, just a metaphor for “good ball”. I suspect that it means literally that a boule in front is worth money.

In France, where petanque is of course much more popular than in the U.S., it is common to bet on petanque games and to play for money. (America a few years ago produced a movie called “The Hustler” about a pool hustler. In 2013 France produced “Les Invincibles” about a petanque hustler.) So I think that in the expression “Boule devant, boule d’argent”, “money ball” isn’t at all a metaphor. It is referring to real folding money in one’s pocket.

Finally, the old maxim has an unwritten flip-side.

If if you don’t have any boules in front — if you leave the front open and the opposing team still has boules to play — you are leaving your money on the table and asking your opponents to walk off with it.

If the front is open (le jeu est ouvert), you are inviting the opposing team simply to point right down the center and score as many points as they have boules.

So when you’re asking yourself the old question — To point? Or to shoot? — you should always ask yourself whether, if you shoot, sucessfully or not, you will be leaving the front open.

Terminology – revenge & beauty

In club play or friendly neighborhood play, teams often play several games in a row.

In English, we would say that after the “match” comes the “rematch” or “return match”. In petanque, in French, after the first game, the loser may propose la revanche.

If after two games the teams are tied (one game to one game), the teams may decide to play a third “playoff” game, la belle (the beauty).

I don’t know the origin of the term. In French belle means beautiful, but the expressions de belle and de plus belle mean (roughly) “even more” or “more than ever”.

In any event, the terminology lends itself to petanque humor — gently risqué double entendre.

— “You won (gagné) the first game (la première). We won the second (la seconde). Shall we do the beauty (la belle)?”
— “OK,” he says (throwing away his boule and heading toward his mixed-doubles partner, a very attractive young woman). “I’ll go first.”

Terminology – court, terrain, boulodrome

The proper term for an area where a game of petanque is played is a “terrain”.

Americans often use the expression “petanque court” like they would “tennis court” or “basketball court”. This makes many petanque players uneasy, because although you need a tennis court to play tennis, and a basketball court to play basketball, you don’t need any kind of “court” to play petanque. As the Petanque America web site says

Actually the word “court” is a misnomer. We use it here because many people search for that term. Petanque is by nature a game one can play without a setup, sort of like frisbee.

Certainly you don’t need fancy or expensive facilities to play petanque. As Byron Putman says, petanque is quite different from golf—

There are no lush fairways, sparkling blue waters or veranda bars with bistro tables and lazily swirling ceiling fans. … I regularly play on public walking paths, gravel parking lots and even empty fields — that’s why we call it a “terrain” and not a court, to signify the lack of grooming. Petanque terrains don’t require water, fertilizer, pesticides or maintenance.

On the other hand, although you don’t NEED elaborate facilities to enjoy petanque, there are indeed sports facilities designed and constructed specifically for the playing of petanque. Most of them are in France. They are called “boulodromes”.

Terrain and boulodrome ▲

The word “terrain”, when used in connection with petanque, means simply “the area where you’re playing a game of petanque”. It doesn’t imply any sort of permanent facility. In my home town, we simply walk down to the local park and find a flat, open spot to play. While we are playing, that spot in the park is our terrain.

The word “boulodrome” goes back to the ancient Greeks. “Hippos” was the Greek word for “horse” and a “hippodrome” was a facility for horse races, a race track. Similarly, a “boulodrome” is a facility designed, constructed, and used for playing boules. Just as a tennis facility may provide one or more tennis courts, a petanque boulodrome may provide one or more “lanes”. Like a tennis facility, a boulodrome might be outdoors, covered, or completely enclosed. An outdoor boulodrome is a boulodrome exterieur. A covered or enclosed boulodrome is a boulodrome couvert.

Outdoor boulodrome, Le Lavandou, Var, France

Outdoor boulodrome, Le Lavandou, Var, France

Covered and partially enclosed boulodrome in Livinhac-le-haut, Aveyron, France

Covered and partially enclosed boulodrome in Livinhac-le-haut, Aveyron, France.

A very new and modern completely enclosed boulodrome in Bas-Bugey, France.  With such a facility it is possible to play at night, and year-round.

A very new and modern completely enclosed boulodrome in Bas-Bugey, France. With such a facility it is possible to play at night, and year-round. CLICK to view larger image.

The English word “court” is a natural word to use when referring either to a boulodrome or to a lane (cadre or piste) in a boulodrome. What petanque players want you to realize is that petanque DOES NOT REQUIRE a court in either of those senses.

They also want you to know that petanque is not bocce ▲

Sometimes when a petanque player insists that there is no such thing as a petanque “court”, he is trying to make the point that you don’t need a court to play petanque… the way you do with bocce.

In the United States there are many more bocce players than petanque players. The Italians simply got to America sooner, and in greater numbers, than the French did. So when it comes to public funding, bocce gets all the visibility and all the money. To American petanque players, that seems unfair. And also stupid.

I’ve just read The Joy of Bocce, where the author advocates the construction of bocce courts in schools across the United States. That’s the typical “bait-and-switch” tactic of bocce promoters. They hide the fact that bocce requires extremely expensive, high-maintenance courts. I have seen public bocce courts in California and Oregon that cost thousands of dollars to install, and after months of lack of maintenance have become completely unplayable.

Petanque is played on hard dirt with a little crushed rock (D.G., decomposed granite). Many public parks have open areas or paths with exactly this kind of surface. These areas are essentially maintenance-free. They are perfect for petanque, and they are also available for general public use. Why spend huge amounts of money to build dedicated bocce courts that require expensive ongoing maintenance, when for pennies on the dollar school and city officials can create multi-use, virtually maintenance-free dirt and D.G. terrains?

Petanque on public walking paths in Centennial Garden, Denver, Colorado, USA

Petanque on public walking paths in Centennial Gardens, Denver, Colorado, USA

Terminology – What is a mène (end, round) in petanque?

A mène (pronounced like the English word “men”) is the petanque equivalent of a round in boxing or an inning in baseball. Roughly speaking, a mene consists of three activities – placing the circle and throwing the jack, throwing the boules, and the agreement of points. A 1971 Canadian Petanque Federation rules booklet defines a mène this way–

When all of the players have played all of their boules, we say that they have played a mène. A game is composed of whatever number of mènes is necessary for one of the teams to score a winning number of points.

The most literal English translation for the French noun mène is “direction“, as in— During a mène the teams play in one direction, and then during the next mène they play in another direction.[1]

Probably the most natural American English translation of mène is “round” (as in: a round in a boxing match).

The FIPJP’s English-language translation of its rules (supervised by Mike Pegg, an English umpire) translates mène as “end“, a word borrowed (like the word “jack” for the target ball) from lawn bowls. To an American the choice of the word “end” is unfortunate. Few Americans are familiar with lawn bowls and its terminology, and using “end” this way leads to clumsy locutions such as “the end of the end”. It also suggests that each mène is played from one or the other of the two ends of a marked rectangular court or lane (cadre). While this is often true of games played in organized competitions, it is not true of petanque in its most traditional form, which played on an open area (terrain libre) in a place like a village square or a public park.

A case can be made for translating mène into English as frame. “Frame” is used, for instance, in American bowling and in bocce. (See Mario Pagnoni’s The Joy of Bocce, 4th edition, p. 34).

In our opinion, the best way to deal with the word mène is to treat it as a petanque technical term and not to translate it at all. Every sport has its own specialized terminology for the subdivisions of a game. Tennis has sets, baseball has innings, boxing has rounds, basketball has quarters, bowling has frames. Why shouldn’t petanque have mènes? When discussing the game in English we can make one reasonable concession to English-language spelling conventions— we can omit the accent on the è and write simply “mene“.

One of the frequently-asked questions about menes is “When does a mene start and end?” Another way of asking the same question is: “What kinds of events mark the start, and the finish, of a mene?” You can find the answer to that question HERE.


[1] The French word mène, when used as a verb, means to lead, to go to, to take to, to conduct.

Cette porte mène à la cave.
This door leads to the cellar.
This door goes to the cellar.
This door takes you to the cellar.

When mène is used as a noun— la mène— the most literal English translation is probably “a direction”, as in “This door is the way to the cellar. This door is the direction to the cellar.”