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carte blanche

[kahrt blanch, blahnch; French kart blahnsh] /ˈkɑrt ˈblæntʃ, ˈblɑntʃ; French kart ˈblɑ̃ʃ/
noun, plural cartes blanches
[kahrts blanch, blahnch; French kart blahnsh] /ˈkɑrts ˈblæntʃ, ˈblɑntʃ; French kart ˈblɑ̃ʃ/ (Show IPA)
unconditional authority; full discretionary power: The government appears to have given the military carte blanche in Afghanistan.
She was given carte blanche to decorate her room as she wished, perhaps an unwise decision on the part of her parents.
Cards. a hand having no face card but with a special scoring value, as in piquet.
Origin of carte blanche
1645-55; < French: literally, blank document; see carte, blank
Word story
Carte blanche entered the English language as a French loan word in the mid-17th century, when card games were all the rage. A highly fashionable game of the time was piquet, in which a carte blanche was a hand having no face cards. When not playing piquet, English speakers used carte blanche in a literal sense to refer to physical pieces of paper (“carte”) that were blank or white (“blanche”).
By the 18th century, the meaning had expanded to include blank pieces of paper upon which someone signed his name, trusting a second party to come up with the stipulations of a deal. This idea of signing a yet-unwritten contract and handing over authority to the other party led us to the sense most familiar to speakers of modern-day English. Nowadays, if someone has been given carte blanche, it does not mean that she is holding a blank contract or playing cards. It means that she is free to do or say whatever she pleases.
Note that it is a mistake to say “a carte blanche” unless you are talking about a piquet hand or a blank, signed contract. When used in the sense of giving someone free rein, you say they have been given “carte blanche,” and not “a carte blanche.”
On the other hand, blank check, an English term with very similar meanings, is always used with “a” or some other determiner. That term underwent the same progression as carte blanche from its literal meaning to a figurative one (as in Congress gave the president a blank check of unconditional support ). Unlike carte blanche, however, the literal meaning has not fallen out of use. We no longer play piquet, but we still, occasionally, write checks.
Related Quotations
“I understand that you give me carte blanche to act for you, provided only that I get back the gems, and that you would place no limit on the sum I may draw.“
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet“ Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
“[T]his deal gave the developer carte blanche to wield power in a self-interested way.“
—Steve France, “Dusty Doctrines“ ABA Journal (May 2001)
“It’s the kind of success which pretty much gives them carte blanche in terms of what they want to do next, although they’ve always done their own thing.“
—Adam Lowes, “‘Hornet’ Brings in the Green While True Grit Hangs in There“ HeyUGuys (January 18, 2011) Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.
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Examples from the Web for carte blanche
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • I think, after securing his agent's services, he left him carte blanche to act as he would.

    Barren Honour: A Novel George A. Lawrence
  • But he knew what he was talking about, and they had given him carte blanche.

    The Christian Hall Caine
  • "I did not mean to offend you; I give you carte blanche to insult mine" (holding out a very minute Russia leather one).

    Red as a Rose is She Rhoda Broughton
  • Mr. Adams promised Mr. Gallatin carte blanche as to his instructions.

    Albert Gallatin John Austin Stevens
  • "He didn't quite give me carte blanche," retorted Greek, grinning.

    Under Handicap Jackson Gregory
  • At all events, she gave me carte blanche to publish the results of my observations.

    Mystic London: Charles Maurice Davies
  • Above all, the new commander gave Buonaparte carte blanche for the direction of the artillery.

British Dictionary definitions for carte blanche

carte blanche

/ˈkɑːt ˈblɑːntʃ; French kart blɑ̃ʃ/
noun (pl) cartes blanches (ˈkɑːts ˈblɑːntʃ; French) (kart blɑ̃ʃ)
complete discretion or authority: the government gave their negotiator carte blanche
(cards) a piquet hand containing no court cards: scoring ten points
Word Origin
C18: from French: blank paper
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for carte blanche

1707, blank paper, French, literally "white paper" (see card (n.) + blank (adj.)); figurative sense of "full discretionary power" is from 1766.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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carte blanche in Culture
carte blanche [(kahrt blahnsh, kahrt blahnch)]

To be given “carte blanche” is to receive the power and authority to do as one wishes: “The prime minister herself did not take any action on the refugee issue but gave her minister of the interior carte blanche to deal with the situation.” Carte blanche is French for “blank card,” meaning one that can be filled in as a person wishes.

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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