Friday’s French – prune and other metaphorical colours   

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carte_grise_verteI’m reading a book in French and come across an expression I don’t know (which doesn’t often happen – I’m a translator after all). “C’est quoi, prendre une prune”, I ask Jean Michel. “Une amende”. So why would you call a speeding or a parking ticket a plum? Maybe it’s the colour of the ticket, he surmises, like a carte verte or carte grise. Prune incidentally corresponds to what we call burgundy.


This is very typical of French – designating something by its appearance rather than its purpose. Carte grise is what EVERYONE calls car registration papers and the carte verte is the insurance certificate and not a working visa.

However, I checked out prune and the expression doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the colour but rather the fruit. Back in the 13th century, prune already had several metaphorical meanings: a blow, bad luck, something worthless, all of which correspond pretty well to a speeding or a parking ticket.

The actual reason why prune developed these meanings is obscure but one legend has it that the crusaders brought back plum trees from Damask after the second crusade which they lost, prompting the king to say, “Don’t tell me you only went there for plums” (i.e. for nothing).

Another ticket-related colour is aubergine which later became pervenche or periwinkle blue used to designate traffic wardens after the colour of their uniforms. Their official name is contractuelle because they are employed on a contractual basis and are not regular civil servants.

The real name for a ticket is a PV or procès-verbal, which is really the strangest thing because it literally means a verbal process, yet it’s written down.

Many years ago, I accidentally went through a red light (I didn’t see it – it was one of those very low ones and I was turning right) and was stopped by a policeman. He asked for my carte grise, carte verte and permis de conduire (which used to be pink but was never called a pinkie which, incidentally, is petit doigt or auriculaire in French because it is the only one small enough to be inserted into the ear).

I did the “excusez-moi monsieur, je suis vraiment désolée, je n’ai pas vu le feu” bit and he answered “je ne vais pas vous verbaliser” which I assumed meant I wasn’t going to get away with a spoken reprimand and that he was giving me a ticket. But he waved me away instead! Verbaliser actually means to give someone a procès-verbal. Very disconcerting.

Do you know any more expressions based on colour?

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10 thoughts on “Friday’s French – prune and other metaphorical colours   ”

  1. Yay! An expression I knew and you didn’t!! Mind you, that probably means I hang out with the wrong sort 🙂

    You can use prendre une prune in any situation where you mean you ‘took a hit’ or ‘took a blow’. It is mostly used to indicate you got a driving fine, or that you have been shot.

    1. Well, if the people you hang out with use it to talk about being shot, then they are definitely the wrong sort!

  2. Wow i got no idea prune could mean bad luck! In English we always say we feel blue as we feel sad or depressed right (especially monday)?

    I think Japanese and Chinese culture also have symbolic meanings attached to each colour! I know red and white colours are auspicious colours which you use for ceremonies in Japan and China. Like white symbolises nothingness, purity and death – so Chinese only use it for funerals but Japanese also use it for weddings because new bride supposes to join a new family pure and clean.

    1. Surprising, isn’t it? Thanks for your input. I can remember seeing funeral processions in Hong Kong that were brightly coloured.

  3. Fascinating piece, Rosemary! (And I thought the policeman meant to give you a ticket, too! Yay for mercy!)

    “Tirer à blanc” comes to mind, corresponding to the Spanish, “tirar al blanco” with which I’m more familiar, meaning “target shooting” or “target practice.” But what is the meaning behind this color connection? Hmmm . . . at one time, and chime in if I’m wrong, you could recognize cartridges with and without bullets by their different colors; those without bullets or with what English speakers call “blanks” were often times white/blanc/blanco. In Spanish, the noun “blanco” has come to mean the target itself.

    1. “Tirer à blanc” means to fire blanks, so it’s “blanc” used in the sense of “blank” and not “white”, but perhaps there is a story of colour coding there. I’ll have to go searching further!

      1. Thanks, Rosemary, for clarifying the meaning of the French phrase. Still, I so enjoy the connections of things and the words that describe them . . . cannot help but wonder how these two phrases where one is shooting, but not to kill, might be related in the word that means “white” in both languages. So, will be interested to learn what you find out!

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