The English language has borrowed a great many words and phrases from French. In fact, since 1650, a vast majority of loanwords—words and expressions taken from other languages to help comprise the English lexicon—have come (and continue to come!) from French, including quiche, chic, faux pas, savoir faire, and the topic of this article: carte blanche. How long have English speakers used the phrase carte blanche as their own? And what exactly does it mean? Read on for these answers and more.
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Carte blanche is a noun meaning, according to the English dictionary, unconditional or full authority. If someone gives you carte blanche, they give you the power and permission to carry out an action in any way you see fit. In other words, they give you the freedom to act at your own discretion—to do what you think is right and to make a decision or decisions in the manner you so wish and choose. Here are a few example sentences that correctly use this noun (which is also an idiom; more below) as well as help illustrate the definition of carte blanche:
The interior decorator had carte blanche to design his client’s living room. The school’s principal gave the senior class president carte blanche for homecoming week, letting her plan the events and take care of decorations. The president told the military commanders they had carte blanche; they had the power to protect their country by any means necessary.
You may often see or hear the term used in a legal setting or in regards to legal documents, as well as in a business environment. For example, a person may be given legal carte blanche to act on someone’s behalf. Or, a boss may give his employee carte blanche to represent him at a meeting.
The Origins of Carte Blanche
It appears carte blanche was first borrowed from French and used in English in 1751. However, some sources date it to the mid-17th century, around 1645 or 1655. The term translates literally to “blank document” or “blank paper,” or to “white card/paper.” Carte can have many definitions in French; carte blanche can also translate to “blank ticket” or “blank map.” The Spanish language variant of this French phrase is carta blanca.
There are several theories as to how the phrase came to be and how it came to be used to mean full discretionary power. One holds that, in the 17th century, card games were quite popular. A particularly fashionable card game called piquet featured a possible hand called carte blanche; it meant a player held no face cards. Taken from the game, players familiar with the term then likely began using the phrase very literally to describe pieces of paper or cards (carte) that were blank or white (blanche).
Once players began using the term this way, it caught on outside of the game and outside of card-playing circles. By the 18th century, scholars say, people began using the term to describe a document that was completely blank except for a signature, which gave a second party the power to come up with the terms of a deal when the signer couldn’t be there to negotiate. To phrase it another way, they used it to mean a yet-unwritten but signed contract—the permission to carry out an action with full license and freedom. As illustrated above, this is the figurative meaning ascribed to carte blanche today. Some historians believe this use originated with King Charles II. It was reported that he gave royal employees blank, signed documents so they could complete tasks in his name.
Today, unless you are talking specifically about a blank, signed contract or a piquet hand, you should not say or write “a carte blanche.” Simply write or say that you have given or someone has been given “carte blanche.”
In French, the plural form of carte blanche is cartes blanches. However, you’ll rarely if ever need to say or write the plural cartes blanches in English. That’s because, grammatically, the phrase is what is called a mass noun. A mass noun denotes something that cannot be counted or lacks a plural option. Because it cannot be pluralized in English usage, carte blanche doesn’t take an article, which modifies a noun, such as a. Other articles are the and an.
Common Synonyms for Carte Blanche
Although you don’t need to write or say “a carte blanche,” you should use the article if you aim to use the term blank check, which has a very similar meaning. Like carte blanche, blank check was once used only literally—just to describe an actual blank check, signed but without a dollar amount filled in—but is now used figuratively to mean complete freedom or control over an action. Thus, it is a synonym for carte blanche. Here is an example sentence correctly using blank check with the article a:
He had a blank check when it came to planning the course curriculum.
If you’re looking to describe a situation in which someone was given complete and absolute control over its outcome but you don’t want to use the terms carte blanche or blank check, you can also say they were given free rein or free hand. Although these phrases are the best synonyms for carte blanche, a few other words and phrases can also be used to express the same or a similar sentiment. Because they are not an exact match, they are often known as near synonyms.
No holds barred
Power of choice
A quick look in the thesaurus will turn up additional synonyms and near synonyms to use in place of carte blanche when you are speaking or writing.
Is Carte Blanche an Idiom?
Carte blanche is a term known as an idiom. An idiom is an expression that’s meaning is unrelated to the individual words that comprise it. These words and phrases aren’t to be taken literally; they have a figurative rather than literal meaning that often can’t be determined simply by looking at the words themselves. You must know the expression outright. As is not the case with most idioms, there are rare occasions in which carte blancheis used literally—to refer to a blank or white document; see above. However, for the most part, the term is used figuratively to mean the license and authority to do as you wish.
Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many other idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water. His boss gave him the ax. It’s time to face the music. You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
To recap, carte blanche is an idiom that functions as a noun. The phrase was borrowed from the French language, in which it literally translates to “blank document.” In English, the term is used to express unconditional authority, complete discretion, or absolute power. If a person is given carte blanche, they have the capacity to act freely in a situation in any manner they desire. Note that a person is simply given “carte blanche” not “a carte blanche”; the article is not needed when using the term. Common synonyms for carte blanche include blank check and free reign or free hand.
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