25 Coups de Plume

By Mark Nichol

What, exactly, is a coup, and how many kinds of coups are there? This post describes a variety of phrases using the word, plus an array of related terms.

Coup, a word for a sudden bold and/or brilliant act — it also serves as a truncation of “coup d’état” — comes from the French word coup, meaning “stroke” or “blow”; ultimately, it’s from the Greek term kolaphos by way of the Latin borrowing colaphos.

Few of the following expressions have been widely adopted into English, but they’re all available for literal and/or idiomatic use:

1. Coup à la porte (“knock on the door”): a signal or summoning
2. Coup bas (“low blow”): a cheap shot
3. Coup d’archet (“stroke of the bow”): contact of the bow with one or more strings on a violin or a similar instrument
4. Coup d’chance (“stroke of luck”): a fortunate event
5. Coup d’eclat (“stroke of glory”): a glorious feat
6. Coup d’état (“stroke of state”): the overthrow of a national government by a government faction — usually, elements of the nation’s military
7. Coup d’oeil (“stroke of the eye”): a survey taken at a glance
8. Coup de coeur (“blow to the heart”): an intense but short-lived passion
9. Coup de crayon (“stroke of the pencil”): an expression of artistic creativity
10. Coup de destin (“blow of fate”): a tragic event
11. Coup de foudre (“stroke of lightning”): an unexpected sudden event; also, love at first sight
12. Coup de glotte (“stroke of the glottis”): a method in singing and speaking technique in which the glottis, the space between the vocal folds, is suddenly manipulated by muscular contraction
13. Coup de grâce (“stroke of mercy”): a blow or shot to end the suffering of a mortally wounded person or animal; a figuratively similar act; or a decisive act, event, or stroke
14. Coup de l’amitié (“stroke of friendship”): one (drink) for the road
15. Coup de main (“stroke of the hand”): a sudden, full-scale attack, or assistance
16. Coup de plume (“stroke of the pen”): a witty or masterful turn of phrase
17. Coup de poing (“stroke of the fist”): a punch, or a shock
18. Coup de pouce (“stroke of the thumb”): a helping hand, or a nudge
19. Coup de repos (“stroke of rest”): a chess move in which a player prepares for a blow against the player’s opponent
20. Coup de sang (“stroke of blood”): extreme anger
21. Coup de théâtre (“stroke of theater)”: a sudden twist in a stage play’s script, or, in general, a sudden turn of events or a sudden effect; also, a successful stage production
22. Coup du ciel (“stroke from heaven”): sudden good fortune
23. Coup dur (“stroke of difficulty): a tough blow, or something difficult to accept
24. Coup en traître (“stroke of treachery”): a stab in the back
25. Coup monté (“stroke of fitting”): a frame-up or con

Many other phrases and expressions include the word coup; those listed above are just most of them that begin with it. Among the others are coup pour coup (“blow for blow,” or “tit for tat”) and coup sur coup (“in quick succession,” or “time after time”).

Coup appears in other usages, and related terms abound. A coup injury is one in which the head strikes an object, causing injury to the brain; the accompanying countercoup injury to the brain occurs when the head strikes a fixed object, causing the brain to impact against the skull as well.

Counting coup is the act of dominating or defeating an opponent in single combat without causing injury; in some Native American cultures, a warrior won such prestige by striking a foe or an enemy position with a hand, a weapon, or a coup stick, or by stealing an opponent’s weapon or his horse. Success in counting coup, which required the honoree to withdraw without injury, was acknowledged by notches cut in the coup stick or eagle feathers worn in the honoree’s hair.

Coupage has four distinct meanings: blending two types of wine to alter flavor, mixing drugs with other substances, removing hair from a hide, and tapping on the thorax to help dislodge secretions, such as in treatment for tuberculosis. Decoupage, unrelated to any of these senses, describes decoration of an object with paper cutouts and other materials.

Other terms with the root word coup include recoup, which originally meant “to deduct,” though now the general sense is of compensation for a loss, and beaucoup, a French term meaning “many, a great number.” The latter entered general usage in American English by way of military personnel who had served in Vietnam, which had until recently been part of French Indochina.

Coupé, the word for a type of carriage and, later, a style of car, is related; the sense is of something cut (with a stroke) down to a smaller size. So, too, is coupon, from the French word for “piece.” They are cognate with the verb cope, frequently seen in the phrase “cope with” and meaning “deal with challenges” and, less often, “prevail in combat or competition.” A coping saw, meanwhile, is a tool with a small, thin, saw blade set in a U-shaped frame, and a coppice (also rendered copse) is a thicket of trees cultivated for cutting.

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6 Responses to “25 Coups de Plume”

  • Angela Booth

    Mark, thank you for these.

    I never realized there were so many “coup” expressions. I love “coup de foudre” and “coup de sang” — they’ve given me ideas for my current novel.

    I’m adding these expressions to my journal. Inspiring.

  • Vincent

    Thanks for this post; three quick notes, however:

    1° There is an accent on “éclat” : Coup d’eclat -> Coup d’éclat.

    2° “coup d’chance” reflects the pronunciation, but it should be written with a full “de”. Or if you are going for the “write as it is spoken” angle, you have to be consistent and write “coup d’cœur”…

    3° … which is written “cœur”, with a o-e ligature, not “coeur”.

  • Christopher Martyn

    Excellent list. Thanks.

    But your explanation of the brain injury isn’t quite right and, in neurological circles at least, it’s spelt contracoup.

    A contracoup injury occurs not at the site of impact but diametrically opposite. So a blow to the forehead might produce an injury to the back of the brain. There’s a good account of coup and contracoup injuries in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contracoup-coup).

  • Deborah

    Splendid work today, Mark. I’d like to make a pun, but I am overwhelmed by the content.

    “Beaucoup” is a word that I associate more with Louisiana rather than Vietnam, but certainly a lot of French and Vietnamese words entered our vocabulary through the military. I learned a lot of them by reading Richard Marcinko’s books!

  • thebluebird11

    Nice list! Never heard of most of these expressions. My friends would think I was hoity-toity if I used them though.

    Now, I’m not a native French speaker, but I minored in French in college, and I believe it should be coup de chance (no elision of the “e”).

    Also, I agree with Christopher; in medicalese, it’s contrecoup, and it results from a whiplash-type injury; first the head snaps forward, then whips backward. The head may or may not actually hit anything; the problem is that the brain, which kind of “floats” around in your skull, bangs first against the front of the skull, then against the back of it (or, in the case of a side impact, side-to-side injury). What you would see, on imaging (x-rays) is bleeds on opposite sides of the brain, not just one side.

  • Sally

    A marvellous list.

    Thank you, Mark!

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