Parlons Pétanque – Let’s Talk Petanque!

By Mr.Bordsenius at 2005-09-07

If you ever play in France, you’ll soon learn that petanque has its own ‘language’, a few words all of its own and lots of expressions about the game.

By Ray Ager
Let’s start with a few English terms. Firstly, petanque, pronounced “pay-tonk” or “pay-tanka” if you want to add an authentic Marseille accent, is played on a terrain and not a ‘court’ or ‘pitch’.

The game is played using boules not ‘bowls’ or ‘balls’. NB The ‘s’ isn’t pronounced.
Boules are both the boules you use to play with and also the generic name for a family of different boules games. Unless you wish to specifically refer to one single boule, boules is usually plural. Just as you say, “let’s play cards” and not “let’s play card”, you normally say, “let’s play boules”.

Petanque, played 6 – 10m with both feet inside the circle, is by far the most popular. Played on an irregular, unprepared surface, you can play almost anywhere.

Petanque is derived from Le Jeu Provençal, the “Provence Game”, usually called La Longue – the long game. Can you guess why? Of course, because it’s played over a longer distance, 15 – 21m, using the same boules as petanque. Whilst the principles are the same, the main difference in techniques is that the pointer takes one step forward and the shooter takes 3 running steps – les trois pas - and shoots on the 3rd step. Rolling shots, à la rafle, are against the rules – this no doubt explains why the French don’t like rolling shots in petanque. Instead you’re expected to shoot boule-to-boule or au fer.

The other main game is Boules Lyonnaise or simply, La Lyonnaise. Played with larger and heavier boules, again over longer distances and with running shots. It’s a more athletic boules game, often called Sport Boules. Although still played on a gravel surface, it’s usually a smooth, prepared surface. Rules are stricter and everything has to be marked – no luck allowed! Shots have to be nominated and if you miss, anything moved is put back.

In practise, many people – even in France! – say “let’s have a game of boules” when playing petanque.

Of course, don’t forget le cochonnet, lit. “the piglet”, the small target ball – yes, it is a ball! Although some English players call it the coche – a word that doesn’t exist either in French or English! – it’s much better to simply call it the jack. In French, cochonnet is a somewhat ‘formal’ term, that you rarely hear used on the terrain. Legend has it that players in Le Midi – the South of France, i.e Provence – consider it a foreign Parisian term. They all call it le but, the jack or more informally le petit, the little one or le bouchon, the cork.

A few of the more common French words and phrases.
Tu tires ou tu pointes? “Do you shoot or point?”, the basic question you’ll usually be asked whenever you join a game, showing how important team roles and tactics are. Unless you’re a really excellent shooter, much better to say you’ll point – you’ll impress them that much more if you’re a pointer who can also shoot, rather than a shooter who misses!

NB You’re far more likely to hear the informal tu on the petanque terrain, rather than the more formal vous.

Boule devant, boule d’argent. A boule in front (of the jack) is better than a boule behind. Difficult to translate exactly, but here argent means money, so it’s sort of “a boule in front of the jack is worth money”.

(Faire un) devant de boule. To play onto an opponent’s boule. Usually a good defensive shot that is difficult to shoot.

Faire un trou, “To make a hole”, i.e. when the shooter misses!

Une mène, an end.

Une partie, a game.

La revanche, a return (revenge!) match.

La belle, the deciding game in a best-of-3.

C’est quoi, le jeu? “What’s the game?”, i.e. what shot should we play?

Allez, fais-moi plaisir! “Go on, make me happy!”, usually said by a team-mate to encourage their shooter.

There are loads more expressions but these are a few of the more common ones you’re likely to hear on the terrain – Allez-y!

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