Coping with “coups”

Over this past weekend, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quelled an attempted military coup. While failed, the coup still delivered a harsh “blow” to the country – and lived up to its own etymology.


A military coup is short for a coup d’état, which literally means a “stroke of state” in French. The “stroke” characterizes a coup’s sudden, usually violent overthrow of a government. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English has been using the shortened coup since at least 1852, the full French phrase since 1646.

In French, a coup is a widely used term for a “blow,” as in a really hard hit. (The English “hit” might well parallel coup’s versatility.) Other borrowed phrases, like coup de grâce, also feature coup. The word derives from a series of Latin forms, colpus and colapus and colaphus yet before them, ultimately borrowed from the Greek κόλαϕος (kolaphos), a “cuff” or “buffet,” like a box on the ears.

For the origin of the Greek kolaphos, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots proposes the Proto-Indo-European *kel-, “to strike.” We previously encountered this hypothetical root in the “twiggy lot” of clerk.

Cashing in on coups?

English first borrowed French’s coup in the early 16th century when it referred to a physical “blow” – and when it’s final p was pronounced. It borrowed it again in the 18th century, using it figuratively and, like in French, issuing a lethal coup to that last letter. But English had been using coup in verbal forms since the 14th century. The verbal coup was from the French couper, “to strike,” via that same coup.

Now, cope was a variant of this coup: Starting with “strike,” cope evolved to mean “to engage in combat,” “contend,” and “face successfully.” It then made the metaphorical jump to actions we need to take after a coup: to cope with. The connecting sense is “managing” or “dealing with something,” as one does in a conflict. The OED attests the modern, psychological-shaded cope with in 1934.

In French, couper went on to mean “cut,” making coupon a “piece cut off.” English cut off coupon from French in 1822, when a coupon specifically referred to a certificate attached to a bond which could be cut off and presented as a payment on interest. In 1864, a travel agent, Thomas Cook, extended the sense of coupon to a series of pre-payed tickets a traveller used along different points of a journey (e.g., for a hotel, a meal). English cashed in Cook’s usage for its modern coupon.

A two-door coupe or coupé car is a “cut” car. The term comes from the French carrosse coupé, a “cut carriage,” a kind of shorter, hence “cut,” four-wheel carriage.

Turkey’s coup was no mere political metaphor: Nearly 300 died. And how will Erdoğan cope with the coup dissidents? Not with coupons. And certainly not with coupes. He’s promising to throw some harsh, retributive, and, yes, literal coups of his own.

m ∫ r ∫


6 thoughts on “Coping with “coups”

  1. In Germany we say “Staatsstreich”, which is a very accurate translation of “coup d’etat”, “Streich” meaning hit or blow. The more common word, though, is “Putsch”. I have no idea where it comes from, but it is a funny word.

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