Coup d’Etat and Coup de Grace

By Maeve Maddox

Watching a rerun of Castle (U.S. television police drama), I was startled to hear a character use the expression “counting coup.” TV script writers rarely throw in literary or historical allusions. I was pleased to hear it, but disappointed to hear the character pronounce the p in coup.

English has borrowed coup from the French not once, but twice.

In about 1400, coup came into English with the literal meaning of “a blow or a stroke.” As a completely naturalized word, this use of coup was pronounced with a p until it dropped out of use.

Later, in about 1640, the word coup was borrowed into Modern English in the expression “coup d’etat.”

coup d’etat /ˌku deɪˈtɑ/. noun. a sudden and decisive stroke of state policy.

In this figurative expression, the p at the end of coup and the t at the end of etat (French for “state”) are silent.

Several other figurative expressions containing the word coup may be found in English texts written since then. At least two–“coup d’etat” and “coup de grace”–are still common in the general media. “Coup d’etat” is often shortened to coup and used to describe a take-over of power, as in “a military coup.” The p is silent.

coup de grace /kudə ˈgrɑs/ noun. a blow by which one condemned or mortally wounded is quickly killed to be spared further suffering.

As novelist Rick Castle explains to his bewildered detective friends, counting coup refers to a custom of the North American Plains Indians. Counting or taking coup could be a literal touching of an enemy with hand, weapon or stick and escaping alive, but it could also refer to taking a scalp, stealing horses, or any other bold act that bestowed prestige upon the doer.

I’ll mention one more use of coup that may be familiar to billiard players: “to run a coup.” This, according to the OED, is “the act of holing a ball without its first striking another ball.”

In case anyone is wondering, the word coupe, in which the p is pronounced, comes from the French verb couper, “to cut.” The French past participle form is coupé, pronounced /kuˈpeɪ/. American usage dropped the accent mark, changing the pronunciation to /kup/. The word first came into use to describe a type of horse-drawn carriage. Now it refers to a two-door automobile.

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6 Responses to “Coup d’Etat and Coup de Grace”

  • Helen

    A couple more uses of coup come to mind (in British English at least):

    coup de foudre – love at first sight (literally a lightening strike – a wonderful image!)

    coup de théâtre – a theatrical hit; a sensational or dramatically sudden action or turn of events, specifiaclly in a play.

  • Eric Nilsson

    You omit contrecoup, the brain injury caused by striking the head with enough force to drive the brain into the opposite side of the skull.

    It was a very enjoyable article, as is Helen’s mention of coup de foudre and cop de teatre.

    While you are at it, how about coup fourre from Mille Bornes? It means “underhand trick.”

  • Bernard Beaulé

    Maybe you would be interested to learn that we French speaking people don’t pronounce the letter p in coup and most certainly amuses us when anglophones do pronounce it.

  • venqax

    we French speaking people don’t pronounce the letter p in coup

    He says that in the article. He says, “/ˌku deɪˈtɑ/” and “/kudə ˈgrɑs/” and “The p is silent.” Readez, s’il vous plait.

  • MJ Fowler

    Another common mispronunciation associated with coup occurs when folks pronounce “coup de grace” as “cou-de-grah”, confusing “grace” with the “gras” of, say, foie gras. A fat strike, indeed!

  • Naya

    It’s funny I’d always heard “coup de grace” mispronounced, but had never seen it, spelled, until today. You learn something new..

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