Originally compiled by David Alfred, of the Brighton and Hove Pétanque Club.
Supplemented and formatted for web publication by Stephen R. Ferg.
I fell in love with pétanque at first sight back in 1965. Playing or practising the game nearly every day over many summers in Marseille and in an Alpine village, I absorbed its terminology and tactics (and a rich vocabulary of swear words) through the expressive language and accent of the Midi.
As a result of this conditioning, I just can’t dissociate pétanque from French. As in other sports or activities, eg, football and cooking (la cuisine), where the terminology associated with its origin or development is used by speakers of other languages, so with pétanque we already use some French terms such as boule (bowl, ball), point (aim), carreau (near perfect shot) and, quite mistakenly, coche (jack).
- “Coche” sounds French but is in fact a purely English abbreviation of one of the many French words for a jack, cochonnet. Despite its widespread use in Britain, I think the word should be avoided like the plague. In old French, coche meant a stagecoach!.
This lexicon seeks to bring together all or nearly all the commonly-used French terms and expressions of pétanque for the benefit of English-speaking players and fans. Speaking some pétanque lingo in the vernacular will greatly please and impress any French-speaking people you play with (there’s really no need to worry about your accent). — David Alfred, May 2009
The word “pétanque” comes from the French les pieds tanqués meaning “feet anchored” (to the ground, within the circle) which in turn probably comes from the provençale pèd tanca or pèd tanco or pès tancats and later, la petanca. The name “feet planted (on the ground)” was used to distinguish this new ‘short’ game from the then current jeu provençal or la longue (“long game”, as it’s often called) in which (among other differences) the bouchon is thrown to 15-20m and (for shooting at least) the players take a few running steps before throwing (as in American bowling). La longue is still played a bit, mainly in the Midi.
To play a game of pétanque — une partie de pétanque you need les boules (metal balls).
You also need a jack, the small wooden target ball.
- There are several names for the target ball. Officially (that is, in the written rules) it is le but (the target, or goal). Most commonly in the South of France it is le bouchon (cork), but in Paris it is le cochonnet (piglet). Other names include le petit (little one), le gari, etc. “Coche” is not a French word — it is an English bastardization of “le cochonnet”. Its utterance should be a serious criminal offence.
le cercle or le rond is the throwing circle. French players often just swipe a curve (une courbe) in the dirt with a toe.
le terrain is the patch of ground where a game of petanque is being played.
When the boundaries of a terrain are marked off (usually by strings strung tightly between nails driven into the ground) the terrain is called une cadre (a lane) or a piste.
l’arbitre is the umpire.
un mètre is a tape measure.
For scoring, the relevant numbers are nil to thirteen: zero, un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix, onze, douze, treize. All is partout, thus dix partout — ten all. If you’re leading 10-5, that’s dix à cinq or merely dix cinq.
If you’re asked the score — vous êtes à combien? —
- If you’re winning 10-5, say nous sommes dix à cinq — we are 10-5, or on mène (gagne) dix à cinq — we’re leading (winning) 10-5.
- If you’re losing 5-10, say on perd cinq à dix.
- Nous avons x points sur le tapis (par terre) — We have x points on the carpet (on the ground).
- Le sac — the bag: (losing or winning) all six points in one end.
If someone asks you what is the score (of another game) — ils sont à combien? –
- ils sont dix à cinq — they are 10-5.
- il (le point) est à nous (vous) — it (the point) is ours (yours).
When counting the number of winning points at the end of a mene, say il y a deux points (there are two points), and possibly continue alors, ça fait x à y (so that makes it x-y).
To score is marquer. Thus: on a marqué deux points (we’ve scored two points). Demarquer is literally to unscore, ie, when one team accidentally hits away its own holding point(s) – which might be followed by cursing, either vocalised or silent.
- When reporting the score the convention is that the first number is that of the team who won the last end. So if team A won the last end and the score is 6-10, you know Team A has 6 points at the start of, and during, the mene currently being played.
Some useful questions are —
- C’est à qui? — whose is it? — asking whether the point just played has won or not.
- C’est à qui de jouer? — Whose turn is it to play? One team or the other.
Each mene (end, or round) (une mène) starts from the circle (le rond or le cercle) which is placed on the terrain (le terrain). The playing area may be divided up into marked lanes (les cadres or les pistes).
The three formats of pétanque are:
- la tête-à-tête — singles (literally “head-to-head”): 3 boules per player
- les doublettes — doubles: 3 boules per player
- les triplettes — triples: 2 boules per player
The classic game is triples. When playing triples, the opposing teams (les équipes) have three players (les jouers) and each player plays two boules. Traditionally, each player has a specific role — the pointer (le pointeur), the middle (le milieu), and the shooter (le tireur). Ideally the middle is able to both point and shoot. The best teams in the world consist of players all of whom can both point and shoot (with amazing skill).
- You might ask or be asked on fait une partie? — shall we have a game?
You might respond: oui, bien sûr — yes, certainly, sure.
- When a team is being formed, you might be asked whether tu tires ou tu pointes? — do you shoot or point?
- Having just lost a game, you might want to play la revanche (literally, revenge) — a return match.
- If it’s one game all, you might be asked if you want to play la belle — the deciding game.
- When you are about to start a game: C’est à nous (à vous) de jouer — It’s up to us (or you) to play (i.e. to play first).
Pointer means to aim, so le pointeur — the pointer is literally the aimer. However, it is now conventional English usage to talk of pointing (rather than aiming) and the pointer. Le pointeur envoie le bouchon — the pointer throws the jack.
When pointing the player needs to identify la donnée — the landing spot. When playing on a rough or sloping terrain he may request advice from team-mates — Ou est la donnée? — Where is the landing spot?
The three ways of pointing are:
- faire rouler (faire glisser) — to roll (or slide the boule along the ground
- faire plomber (porter) — to lob the boule to land within a metre or so of the jack
- faire une demi-portée — to half-lob, so the boule lands about half-way to the jack
There are a number of ways to describe the results of a pointing throw.
- Sometimes the boule will stop right against the jack. This is embouchonner (faire) un bibe(eron) — to make the boule kiss the jack.
- In general, the best point is one that lies in front of (devant) the jack or in the line of play. Hence the rhyming saying: une boule devant, c`est une boule d`argent — a boule in front, that’s a money boule.
- The least desireable point (apart from one miles away from the jack) is one behind (derrière) the jack. Hence another rhyming saying, boule derrière, boule qui perd — boule behind, boule that loses.
- Faire un devant de boule — to place your boule in immediately in front of and kissing an opposing boule. Often this opposing boule is locatedd behind the jack so your boule ends up holding the point. This is a very good play as it is difficult or impossible for your opponents to shoot your boule without disturbing their own boule.
- A good play when necessary is to gently push one of your boules closer to the jack (faire le bec, to give a light kiss) in order to gain the point or add to your winning points. Sometimes, however, you might accidentally push one of your opponents’ boules towards the jack – at which you might exclaim putain! (roughly “Fuck!”, vulgar).
Sometimes you want to give advice to the pointer
- pas plus fort que le jeu — no stronger than the game or not too strong. Said when there is a danger of moving the jack or an opponent boule to your disadvantage.
- (Un peu) plus haut (bas) — (a little) higher (lower): on a sloping terrain.
- (Un peu) plus long (court) — (a little) longer (shorter).
- (Un peu) plus (moins) fort — (a little) stronger (not so strong).
- (Un peu) plus à gauche (à droite) — (a little) more to the left (right).
- Il faut la serrer — Put some backspin it. Serrer is to screw back, that is, to give the boule backspin to reduce its forward motion.
- ajoutons — let’s get more points. Ajouter is to add (more points).
- If there is room for your next boule(s) to beat the opponents’ holding boule(s) or to add to your score, you might say il y a de la place — there’s room.
- If your team has only one boule in the head and it is surrounded by opposing boules, there is a danger that it might be shot out (or accidentally knocked out by one of your own boules). That would make a big score for the opponents. In such a situation it is essential for your team to get another boule into the head — il faut rentrer — it is necessary to get back in.
Reporting the results of a throw
- If your team’s point just beats a poor one played by the opponents, you might say, ironically, j’ai (tu as) (il a) (elle a) gagné un bon — I (you, he, she) has won a good one.
- Un point d’Anglais is an English point, a mediocre point but one that is still beats the opponents’ point.
- Un nari (Provençal?) is a rubbish point.
- Je l’ai gardée à la main — I kept it in my hand. A pointer might say this (plaintively) when he didn’t release the boule properly.
- As a boule passes by the jack going far into the distance, one might say ironically, à Ventimiglia — to Ventimiglia (a town far east of Marseille, just inside Italy). On our terrain, one might say “into the sea” or “to Western Road”.
- C’est pas au jeu — it’s not in the game: a badly played point which is very unlikely to count. C’est dans le jeu — it’s in the game: the contrary.
- Ça gagne (prend). — That wins (takes the point).
- Ça perd — that loses.
- Elle (la boule) est (un peu) longue (courte) — It (the boule) is (a bit) long (short).
- As a boule nears the jack, if it looks like it is going to roll long you can urge it to slow down by shouting at it— avale (swallow), freine (brake) or gratte (scratch).
The basic words are tirer (to shoot) and frapper (to strike or hit). There is a subtle difference between the two, although shooting is commonly used to mean throwing with the purpose of hitting.
The three types of shot are:
- tirer au (plein) fer — shooting on the (full) iron — shooting “metal to metal” so that the shooting boule hits the target boule directly without ever hitting the ground.
- tirer devant — shooting in front of — hitting the ground within about 20cm in front of the target boule.
- tirer à la rafle or tirer à la raspaille — shooting by rolling the boule (along the ground)… frowned on by purists.
The best shot is un carreau when the shooting boule hits the target boule and stays no more than a few centimetres from where the target boule was. The perfect shot is un carreau sur place (in the UK, a “spot carreau”) when the shooting boule exactly takes the place of the target boule. This is shooting and pointing at the same time; two for the price of one!
Un contre (-carreau) is when the target boule is hit but then strikes another boule. This can nullify the purpose of the shot or indeed make things worse.
Un palet is when the shooting boule hits the target boule and then rolls on but stays within about 50cm from where the target boule was. (Some authorities say the shooting boule must also hit the ground within about 50cm of the target boule.)
Une casquette — a cap is when the shooting boule strikes the top of the target boule and then bounces away, leaving the target boule more or less in place.
(T)chiquer (sp?) — to tickle (or brush) a boule, is just barely to nick a boule so that (although nicked) it stays more or less in place.
Ciseaux (scissors) is when you shoot out two opposing boules that are laterally very close to each other.
Une mène royale is a mene where one team wins all six points just by shooting. Extremely rare in a triples game.
Tirer à la sautée — to shoot by “jumping over”: shooting a boule that lies behind another one. This shot is more impressive the closer the boules are. If the throw is also a carreau, you could die of happiness (assuming it’s your throw). (Sautée is also the word used to describe a shooting throw that misses by going over the target boule.)
Tirer sur l’oreille — to shoot on the ear, that is, on the side of the target boule so that it moves sideways.
Tirer le but — to shoot the jack: to hit the jack out of the playing area as a way to avoid defeat. Possibly the ultimate test of a shooter. The purpose of this play is to noyer le but — to drown the jack. One might say c’est noyé — it’s drowned, that is, out of play. If the jack is shot out-of-bounds while both teams still have at least one unplayed boule, the mene is scoreless.
If you think the play is to shoot, you might say
- tires-y — shoot it
- frappes-y — hit it
- fe or fèbre (Provençal) — fire
- fais-la partir — make it go away
- fais courir — make it run away
If a shot is missed, you might say:
- je l’ai manquée/ratée/loupée or il (elle l’a manquée/ratée/loupée — I (he/she) missed it.
- j’ai fait un trou or il (elle) a fait un trou — I have (he, she has) made a hole (in the ground).
- J’etais pas droit — /I wasn’t straight or elle n’était pas droite — it (the boule) wasn’t straight. This is what you say when the shooting boule goes to the right or the left of the target.
- sautée — the thrown boule was too long, it went over its target.
Common expressions that you’ll hear on the terrain
- Bien joué — well played.
- Bien tiré — well shot.
- Bien pointé — well pointed.
- Bravo! — Bravo!
- Mal tombée — literally “bad fall”. In English “bad bounce”. When a lobbed boule takes a wild bounce when it hits the ground.
- Ça suffit — that’s enough, eg, when a shot just clips the target boule to give you the point.
- C’est malheureux — that’s unfortunate, if something goes unexpectedly wrong.
- C’est de la chance — that’s lucky, if something goes unexpectedly well.
- C’est quoi, le jeu?’/what’s the game? ie, what shot should we play or what tactics should we adopt?
- Cette fois — this time, encouraging someone to play again having missed the first shot or point.
- Cherche pas comprendre — don’t try to understand [ie, “just do as I say: I know what I’m talking about”].
- Coup de main — (literally, helping hand) — the (particular) way someone throws the boule.
- Démarquer — to knock out the holding point. This can be very frustrating when it happens to you: thus, on a démarqué means (colloq.) We’ve been and gone and done it.
- Fais-moi plaisir — make me happy: a term of encouragement before someone is about to point or shoot.
- Faire fanny (être fanny) (baiser fanny) [vulgar] is to win (or lose) without having scored any points, so the final score is 13-0. (We’ve all been there.)
- Fais l’effort — try hard: a term of encouragement, usually for an important play.
- Lève le bras — lift your arm: encouraging the shooter to swing the arm fully so the boule travels further or higher (eg, for an à la sautée shot).
- N’aie pas peur — don’t be afraid: of what disaster might befall when you point or shoot – just play normally.
- Rappelle-toi — remember (how you played before).
- Serrer le jeu — to tighten (or lock) up the game: usually by pointing in such a way as to minimise loss or the possibility of losing.
Describing 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.
And my favourite …
Sept a gi n’en gagna gi (Provençal: sp?) — seven nothing wins nothing, ie, the team leading exactly 7-0 at one point will go on to lose the game: a wonderful saying of the Midi that I’ve seen come true many times – but the curse can fail as well.