What Does Carte Blanche Mean?

Knox English has meant to be somewhere for you to study English, but let’s turn our attention to French for a minute. If you talk with native English speakers for long enough, you’ll eventually hear someone use the phrase carte blanche, a loan phrase from French. For example, “My boss gave me carte blanche on the project.” But what does it mean?


Carte is French for card, and blanche means white, so literally it means white card (note how French has the adjective (blanche) after the noun (carte), whereas in English it comes before). So carte blanche gives you the complete freedom to do whatever you want, i.e. to write your own rules. So in the above example, if you asked your boss how you should approach the project, s/he might say you can do it in any way you want. “You’ve got carte blanche.” Often people use it as a reprimand when someone goes beyond their responsibility. If I ask you to paint my house, and when I come back, I find it looking like a rainbow, I might shout at you, “I didn’t give you carte blanche to paint it any colour you wanted.”

There are other similar phrases. Carte blanche is sometimes referred to as a blank slate, e.g. “My boyfriend gave me a blank slate to choose whatever I wanted.” These two phrases are synonymous, although note that we normally don’t use an indefinite article (a/an) before carte blanche, but we do with a blank slate. Another commonly used expression is a blank cheque (or blank check in American English) – which means the same as carte blanche. Alternatively, you might hear people talking about a blank chequebook (checkbook – American English), which sounds like you have unlimited money to spend. This last phrase is often used in soccer reporting, e.g. “Manchester United have given Jose Mourinho a blank chequebook.” You may have noticed by now that the English word blank (which means ‘nothing on it’, e.g. “blank piece of paper”) is derived from the French word blanc/blanche.

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