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Pétante, pile: French phrases to help you set punctual timekeeping

Learning these phrases can be handy if you want to set strict time frames for a meeting, whether socially or professionally

French have some useful phrases to indicate the punctuality Pic: Pressmaster / Shutterstock

Tardiness through procrastination, sloppiness or rank bad manners has annoyed us since time immemorial. “Better to be three hours too soon than a minute too late” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2, Scene 2), wrote The Bard.

Show respect for the voisin who invited you for coffee in the village by arriving en avance (early) or, at worst, pile a l’heure (bang on time). One might also say: 

On se voit à midi pile!” (“See you at noon sharp!”). And let’s not forget that la ponctualité (punctuality) is equally important in professional scenarios.

However, one phrase concerning promptness that you are unlikely to have been taught at school is ‘pétante’, i.e. “rendez-vous à midi pétante”. It means the same thing – “See you at noon on the dot” and has its origins in ye olde Paris. 

A small ‘solar’ cannon (or une méridienne), installed in 1786 in the gardens of the Palais-Royal (on the meridian line of Paris), had a magnifying glass on top. 

It was conceived by le Sieur Rousseau, a master clockmaker based at 95, Galerie de Beaujolais, 1st arrondissement.

At midday when the weather was clement, the sun’s rays produced enough heat to ignite the gunpowder, thus triggering a loud detonation. This told local watch-wearers (who needed to re-set their unreliable montres) that it was “midi pétante” (midday with a bang).

The cannon’s solar ignition is long abandoned, but today a fireman still fires up the olde-school timekeeper once a week: Wednesdays, at noon sharp...

Today, ‘pétante’ can be added to any hour of the day to encourage timeliness, ie à six heures pétantes

Oh, and pétant also means ‘farting’.

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