Coup

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The French word coup has been adopted into English in a number of different phrases. It means 'a blow', or 'a strike', and is pronounced, in English, 'coo' (IPA: /kuː/. (Native French pronounce the vowel more shortly.) The plural is coups ('kooz'). In idiomatic , fairly formal, English, it can be used for a sudden and successful action, as when a stockbroker or other gambler in financial securities makes a sudden and surprising large profit. In horse-racing, gamblers may achieve coups against bookmakers by winning large sums often by means of multiple and related bets. A grand coup ('gron koo', IPA: /ɡʁɑ̃ ku/) is a striking and successful effort; in card games like Bridge and Whist, it labels a technical card play.

  • Among the uses of coup in English are:
    • 'Counting coup': the practice recorded among native Americans of winning honour by touching an enemy in combat, without killing him; and coming off unscathed. Such achievements were made by a special coup-stick, which bore a record in the form of feathers or of notches of the number of 'coups' that the warrior was counting.
    • Coup by itself is most commonly used as a shorter form of coup d'état, IPA: /ku de 'ta/ - a change of government by unconstitutional means.
  • Phrases that are in themselves French but are used as an accepted part of the English language, because there is no native equivalent include the following. The plural of all such phrases is formed by adding '-s' to the word coup, which does not alter the pronunciation.
    • coup de foudre ('coo-de-food-ruh', /ku də fudr/) (literally 'stroke of lightning') is used to mean 'love at first sight' - an immediate passion for someone. It can also be used for any sudden 'flash', as of the instant understanding of 'Oh, I SEE', or an event that comes as an immediate surprise.
    • The coup de grâce ('koo-de-gras', /ku də grɑːs/) (literally 'stroke of grace or mercy') is the blow given to end the suffering of a wounded person or animal. It is traditional for an officer to complete an execution by firing squad to discharge one round from his pistol into the head of the condemned. The phrase may also be used figuratively, as in a score, a tactic or any invincible move in a sports match which guarantees the victory of one side.
    • Coup de main ('koo-de-ma', /ku də mɛ̃ /; literally 'blow of hand') is a military expression meaning 'a sudden attack for the purpose of capturing a position as quickly as possible'.
    • A coup de théâtre ('coo-de-tay-AH-truh', /ku də te'ɑːtr/), often written by Englisah writers with no accents as coup de theatre, is 'a sudden change in the knowledge of the audience', 'a twist in the plot', 'a surprise turn in the story'. Rather more loosely, it can be 'any sudden and striking event portrayed on stage [or any equivalent setting for which 'theatre' is being used figuratively]'. See also peripeteia.
  • You may occasionally see the following French phrases in English texts, but their use seems affected, except to convey a shade of local colouring in, for example, fiction, as they have preferable English equivalents - which you are advised to use in your own writing.
    • A coup d'oeil ('koo-doy', /ku dœj/ (native English speakers more commonly say /əj/), literally 'blow of eye') means
      • in general use, 'a glance', 'first scan of the scene'; 'the first impression of [e.g. a picture or a landscape]'
      • in military use, 'taking a quick view of a scene or position for an appreciation of its military possibilities'.
    • A coup de poing ('coo-de-pwan', /ku də pwɛ̃ /; literally 'blow of fist') is 'a punch'. The phrase has also been used in archaeology to denote a particular form of palaeolithic hand-axe, and in French slang to denote a knuckle-duster.
    • A coup de pied (coo-de-pee-eh' /ku də pje/; literally 'blow of foot') is 'a kick'.
  • There are two homographs pronounced 'cowp' /kaʊp/, both of which may be found written with a '-w-' rather than '-u-', cowp or coup. In Scots, there is one meaning 'rubbish tip', 'rubbish cart', 'the load of a rubbish cart', 'the action of tipping a rubbish cart in order to throw its load onto a tip', and, by extension, 'any form of cart designed to be tipped'; and, more distantly, 'the toppling or fall of a person'. In Scots and north of England dialects, a more obsolete verb 'to coup' (or cowp) means 'to buy', 'to exchange or barter', 'to bargain'. This gives the agent-noun couper, as in horse-couper, which is cognate with the more standard coper.