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, point/aim, carreau/near perfect shot and, quite mistakenly, ‘coche’/jack (which 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).
Any corrections or suggestions for improving this lexicon are welcome.
The word comes from the French les pieds tanqués meaning “feet anchored” (to the ground, ie, within the circle) which in turn probably comes from the provençale pèd tanca or pèd tanco or pès tancats and later, la petanca. This was to distinguish this new ‘short’ game from the then current (le) jeu provençal (the JP in the IFPJP) – or à la longue as it’s often called, where among other differences the bouchon is thrown 15-20m from the circle – which is still played a bit (mainly in the Midi).
So, first things first, 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.
Say you’re leading 10-5: that’s dix à cinq. If you’re asked the score/vous êtes à combien? 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 asked the score and are losing 5-10 say on perd cinq à dix.
If someone asks you what is the score (of another game)/ ils sont à combien?, say ils sont dix à cinq/they are 10-5.
When declaring who’s won the point, say il/le point est à nous/vous/it/the point is ours/yours.
When counting the number of winning points at the end of an end, 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.
NB When keeping score while you’re playing or watching a game, the convention – to be clear who’s got what – 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 end currently being played.
To play a game of pétanque/une partie de pétanque you need les boules and a jack (a small wooden target ball), for which there are several expressions: officially, le but (target/goal), most commonly, le bouchon (cork), but also le cochonnet (piglet), le petit (little one), le gari, etc.
NB ‘Coche’, alas endemic in the UK, is an English, bastardised but highly infectious abbreviation the utterance of which should be a serious criminal offence (or in the US a federal case).
It is useful to have un mètre/a (tape) measure.
Each end/une mène starts from le rond or le cercle/the circle on le terrain/the terrain, possibly divided into les cadres/les pistes/playing areas/lanes.
The three formats of pétanque are:
- les triplettes/triples with opposing teams/les équipes, each of three players/les jouers: le pointeur/the pointer, le milieu/the middle and le tireur/the shooter, each player having two boules.
- les doublettes/doubles, each player having three boules.
- la tête-à-tête/(lit, head-to-head)/singles where each player has three boules.
NB The classic game is triples, where each player has their specific role, with the middle being able to both point and shoot. The best teams in the world consist of players who can all point and shoot (with amazing skill).
You might ask or be asked on fait une partie?/shall we have a game? You might well 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 (revenge)/a return match.
And if it’s one game all, you might be asked if you want to play la belle/the deciding game.
So now we are about to start a game: C’est à nous/à vous de jouer/It’s we/you to play [first].
Pointer means to aim, so le pointeur/the pointer literally means 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, then points the first boule.
NB Any team member can throw the jack.
When pointing, the player needs, especially on an uneven terrain or one with slopes, to identify la donnée/the landing spot. They might seek 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/envoyer/to lob the boule to land within a metre or so of the jack
- faire une demi-portée/to half-lob, ie, so the boule lands about half-way to the jack
Sometimes the boule will stop and rest right against the jack, ie, kiss the jack/embouchonner/faire un bibe(eron).
In general, the best point is one that lies in front of/devant the jack or in the line of play, for which the rhyming saying goes: une boule devant, c`est une boule d`argent/a boule in front, that’s a money boule.
Faire un devant de boule/to place your boule in front of and kissing an opponent`s (usually when lying behind the jack and thus holding the point). This is a very good play as your boule is difficult or impossible to shoot without disturbing the opponents’ boule.
The least good point – apart from one miles away from the jack – is usually one that ends up behind/derrière the jack: to wit, another rhyming saw, boule derrière, boule qui perd/boule behind, boule that loses.
A good play when necessary is to nudge/faire le bec (to give a light kiss) one of your boules closer to the jack, often to win 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!” (vulg). [A selection of common French swear words you’re likely to hear, especially in the Midi, is available upon special request.]
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.
Rentrer/to get (back) in: usually when a team has only one boule in the head surrounded by opponents boules and is thus vulnerable to being shot out (even, accidentally, by the same side!) to make a big score for the opponents, then it’s essential to get another boule (often your team’s last boule to be played) into the head/il faut rentrer.
If your team’s point just beats a poor one played by the opponents, one might say, ironically, j’ai/tu as or il/elle a gagné un bon – I/you have or he/she has won a good one.
Un point d’Anglais/an English point: a mediocre point but one that is still lost by the opponents’ point.
Un nari (Provençal?)/a rubbish point.
Je l’ai gardée à la main/I kept it in my hand: (often said plaintively) when the pointer doesn’t release the boule properly.
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.
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”.
To encourage a boule to slow down as it nears the jack, one might shout at it (usually in vain) avale/swallow, freine/brake or gratte/scratch.
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 est (un peu) longue/courte/it [the boule] is (a bit) long/short.
Helpful advice to the pointer
1. pas plus fort que le jeu/no stronger than the game: especially when there is a danger of moving the jack or an opponent boule to your disadvantage.
2. (Un peu) plus haut/bas/[play] (a little) higher/lower: on a sloping terrain.
3. (Un peu) plus long/court/[play] (a little) longer/shorter.
4. (Un peu) plus/moins fort/[play] (a little) heavier/less heavy.
5. (Un peu) plus à gauche/à droite/[play] (a little) more to the left/right.
Serrer/to screw back, ie, to give the boule backspin to reduce its forward motion, thus dampening it.
6.Thus, il faut la serrer/you should backspin it.
Ajouter/to add (more points): ajoutons/let’s get more points.
Le sac/the bag: (losing or winning) all six points in one end.
Nous avons x points sur le tapis/par terre/we’ve got x points on the carpet/on the ground.
The basic words are tirer/to shoot and frapper/to hit (there is a subtle difference between the two, although shooting is commonly used to mean hitting).
The three types of shot are:
- tirer au fer/plein fer/shooting on the iron, ie, metal to metal or ‘on the full’.
- tirer devant/shooting in front of, ie, hitting the ground within about 20cm in front of the target boule.
- tirer à la rafle/à la raspaille/shooting by rolling the boule along the ground (frowned on by purists).
The best shot is un carreau (square) when the shooting boule hits the target boule metal to metal full front on so that it stays no more than a few centimetres from where the target boule was. The perfect shot – always a pleasure to see (or not as the case may be) and always a great pleasure to perform – is un carreau sur place (CSP) when the shooting boule takes exactly the place of the target boule, so shooting and pointing at the same time, two for the price of one! (In the UK, a CSP is called a ‘spot carreau’.)
[In cockney rhyming slang, a carreau might be called a ‘bow’ – bow and arrow, carreau.]
Un contre (-carreau) is where the target boule is hit out but then strikes another boule which often nullifies the purpose of the shot or indeed makes things worse, even fatal. Or sometimes not.
Un palet is when the shooting boule hits the target boule then stays within about 50cm from where it was. (Some authorities say the shooting boule must also hit the ground within about 50cm of the target boule.)
[A palet might be called a ‘Hammersmith’ as in Hammersmith Palais, a well-known ballroom and entertainment venue in London until 2007.]
Une casquette/a cap is when the shooting boule just brushes or strikes the top of the target boule which stays exactly or more or less in place.
Ciseaux/scissors, when you shoot out two opponent boules which are laterally very close to each other.
Une mène royale is an end 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, the more impressive the closer the boules are. If it’s also a carreau, you could die of happiness (assuming it’s your shot).
Tirer sur l’oreille/to shoot on the ear, ie, on the side of the target boule so that it moves sideways (thus avoiding a contre).
Tirer le but/to shoot the jack: to hit the jack out of the playing area as a last resort to avoid defeat. Thus the purpose of this play is to noyer le but/(lit) to drown the jack. The team trying the shot must have at least one boule in hand by the time the jack is hit out of play so that the other team’s unplayed boules don’t count. One might say, c’est noyé/it’s drowned/ie, out of play. So the end is null and void. Possibly the ultimate test of a shooter.
(T)chiquer (sp?)/to tickle/brush a boule, leaving it more or less in place.
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 or he/she missed it
j’ai fait un trou or il/elle a fait un trou/I or he/she has made (lit) a hole (ie, in the ground).
J’etais pas droit/I wasn’t straight or elle n’était pas droite/it (the boule) wasn’t straight
Here are most of the common expressions you’ll hear on the terrain:
- Bien joué/well played.
- Bien tiré/well shot.
- Bien pointé/well pointed.
- Bravo!/bravo (nearest equivalent in English).
- 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/(lit) helping hand, ie, the (particular) way someone throws the boule.
- Démarquer/to knock out the holding point(s) – very frustrating when it happens to you: thus, “on a démarqué”/(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/to lose 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 up the game: usually by pointing in such a way as to minimise loss or the possibility of losing.
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.
And don’t forget that lovely, lilting, classic song in pure Midi tones about the game, Une Partie de Pétanque, ça Fait Plaisir (A game of pétanque is so enjoyable). YouTube/Google it and the English translation.