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“Coup crisis in Pakistan,” the British newspaper the Guardian announced in its front-page headline on Wednesday.

Strangely, for a word that’s been naturalised for more than three centuries, coup has never quite lost its French accent, though the vowel has lengthened in deference to the slack-jawed speech of its adoptive country. It’s also a conveniently short word for newspaper headlines and late twentieth-century busy thinkers, which is why we so rarely see the full expression coup d’état in other than formal writing.

The original French word was spelt the same, and meant a blow. If we trace it back, we pass though the medieval Latin culpus and classical Latin colaphus, to eventually arrive at the Greek kolaphos for a blow or punch. But moving down the centuries again, we find the links with English branching out from the source in surprising ways.

For a start, coup was been borrowed not once, but twice. It turns up first about 1400 for a blow or stroke, then changes to mean an upset or overturning, and later to refer to emptying something out — such as a wheelbarrow — to finally arrive in modern Scots with the sense of a rubbish tip. That version was soon converted to standard English pronunciation, though the modern Scots word is said as though it were spelt cowp.

The verb arrived at about the same time. One sense — to come to blows or to join battle — went along a different path and slowly changed its pronunciation and spelling to cope. By stages it came to mean contending with danger or difficulties, then successfully dealing with such blows of misfortune, so arriving at our modern sense.

In French coup is a close relative of couper, to cut. This has influenced English, too, since it’s the source of coppice, an ancient way of managing woodlands by cutting the trunks close to the ground and letting them regrow. Coupon came from the same source in the nineteenth century — a certificate which could be cut out and redeemed. And the two-seater cars called coupés derive their name from it, since the original early nineteenth-century French term for a small carriage was a carosse coupé, a cut-off carriage, a version of an older vehicle called a berlin with the back seats taken out. And it was French trappers in what is now Canada who applied the word to the Native American technique of touching an enemy to claim a kill.

And of course coup, in the French pronunciation, is still around in a variety of expressions, such as coup de foudre, for something that happens suddenly, like the lightning strike of the French phrase, coup de grâce (grace blow) for the finishing stroke, and coup de main (a blow of the hand) for a sudden and vigorous attack. The last two of these might have been used in reports of the coup in Pakistan, had they been widely known still.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Oct. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-cou1.htm
Last modified: 16 October 1999.