So, Luc Besson was given quite a bit of time on the French News today to spruik his latest, somewhat silly, film Lucy. We were told in the introduction that not only was it 100% French, 100% Besson but that it was un carton aux États Unis “a (piece of) cardboard in the US”. Now I did, more or less, know what they meant by this strange expression, but I’d forgotten the details so I found myself in that position, familiar to anyone who has learnt another language, of looking something up knowing you’ve done it multiple times before. In the hope that I’ll remember this time I’m going to record the logic of it here.

My 1986 Collins Robert dictionary is fairly unhelpful..

carton [kaʁtɔ̃] 1 nm (a) (matière) cardboard.…
(b) (boîte) (carboard) box, carton (US); (contenu) boxful; (cartable) (school)bag, satchel.…
(c) (cible) target. faire un ~ (à la fête) to have a go at the rifle range; (* : sur l’ennemi) to take a potshot* (sur at); faire un bon ~ to make a good score, do a good shot (Brit).
(d) (Peinture) sketch; (Géog) inset map; [tapisserie, mosaïque] cartoon.
(e) (carte) card. ~ d’invitation invitation card.
2: … (Ftbl) carton jaune yellow card; carton rouge red card …

French Wiktionary is much more helpful with the simple definition…

  1. Success

…but that doesn’t really tell you why it is so or convey the flavour of the expression. It seems clear that the origin of this meaning for the word is the use of cardboard targets with a slight transference from that object to what you do to it, i.e. a hit.

Before you’re tempted to use this (possibly) new-found piece of vocab willy-nilly, it’s worth pointing out that a hit record however is not un carton but un tube, whose basic meaning is much like the English word. I don’t know if this has any relation to the Surferese tubular, but it may have something to do with revving the cylinders of a car “full bore” (marcher à pleins tubes) or giving someone a buzz on the telling bone (donner un coup de tube à qn).

And as for the movie? Margaret loved it (4 stars); David not so much (3½ stars).

DAVID: …The dazzling photography and flashy effects channel such disparate movies as 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY and THE TREE OF LIFE. Kubrick and Malick, plus references to Besson's own NIKITA - what a combination!! LUCY is sheer, unadulterated, rubbish - but it's frequently enjoyable and just occasionally thought-provoking rubbish.

MARGARET: I took it all very seriously, David.

DAVID: You did? Okay.

MARGARET: … It's stupendously stupid in a lot of ways.

DAVID: Absolutely.