‘Nuit blanche’, and other expressions with the word ‘white’ in French

Paris’ famous Nuit Blanche festival takes place this Saturday. We explain the origins of the name and three other French expressions related to the colour white

1 October 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: Connexion France

The annual night-time Paris arts festival, la Nuit Blanche, takes place this weekend. But why is it called ‘the white night’? We explain.

Celebrated in Paris and across the Ile-de-France region, as well as various capital cities across the world, the festival consists of a mixture of light installations, contemporary art exhibitions, and performances scattered across the city. 

It also includes private and public museums and art galleries, which are open and free of charge for the public to enjoy.

But if it happens in the dark, why is it called the ‘white night’?

In French, a ‘nuit blanche is commonly used to refer to a night without sleep. 

It can describe a night out partying – an ‘all-nighter’ in English – but also simply mean a night of insomnia.

A common theory is that the expression has its origins in the Middle Ages when, before being knighted, pretenders would have to spend the whole night praying and fasting, dressed in a white robe. 

They were thus spending a ‘white night’ with no sleep.

However, some linguists point to 18th century royal parties in St Petersburg, Russia. 

Due to the city’s geographical position, the sun is said to never fully set in summer, meaning all-night parties in the ‘white night’ could take place.

It is possible therefore that the expression was coined by the French aristocracy who attended these parties, and brought the phrase back to France with them.

Another expression related to the colour white that you may hear is ‘faire chou blanc’. 

It literally translates to ‘to make a white cabbage’ but actually means ‘to fail’ or ‘not gain anything’.

In the past, if a player did not knock any pins down in a game of bowling, they were said to have made a ‘coup blanc’ – a white strike. 

However, in the dialect of Berry (a historical province of France), the word ‘coup’ would be pronounced as ‘chou’.

The expression was coined in the 16th century but over time it came to be used in a much wider context and can now refer to any kind of failure – not just in bowling. 

‘Un mariage blanc’ – a ‘white marriage’ – refers to a fake or ‘sham’ marriage and is often used to describe marriages of convenience, for example, for the the purpose of either the bride or groom obtaining a residency card.

The colour white symbolises purity, so it is likely that the expression could also represent the lack of sexual relations in this kind of arrangement.

Lastly, you may come across the expression ‘marquer d’une pierre blanche’ (‘to mark with a white stone’), which is used to refer to something we want to remember for a long time, usually in a positive light.

It is said that, during the First French Empire, military service would be drawn by lot. 

A soldier would dip his hand into a bag of black and white rocks to choose who would go into military service. 

If he drew a white rock, he would be exempt, meaning he would remember the day for a long time.

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