PROGRESS, DIGRESS, REGRESS?
THE ETYMOLOGY OF THE WORD COUP
At first glance, there seems to be little difference between a coupe soleil and
a coup de soleil. However, receiving a ‘sun cut’ means you’re having your hair
done a certain way whereas receiving a ‘stroke of the sun’ denotes suffering an epileptic
seizure.1 Examining words that are related, or possibly related, can make for entertainment
to anyone interested in language. The branch of linguistics that is bothered with words, relations, and meaning, is the field of etymology.
The interest in the history of words has been a fairly consistent preoccupation in thinking about language. The seventh-century text Etymologiæ, a work by the Spanish bishop Isidore of Seville, deals, among other things, with etymology.2 Granted, the word relations Isidore formed were hardly scientific and usually wrong. The funny thing is that Isidore himself was aware of this and offers an elaborate explanation, stating that his goal is metaphysical rather than linguistic. His work, since it preserved a lot of classical Greek and Roman writing, was very influential among early medieval scholars of Anglo-Saxon England, such as the Venerable Bede. This demonstrates that thinking about language, and how it operates within reality, is part of an ongoing tradition. Still, it took a while for linguistics as we know it today to take flight. It was not until the Grimm brothers (yes, the ones from the fairy tales), centuries later, began to compare languages, that pattern spotting and developing reconstructionist models became a thing in the humanities. The philologist William Jones reintroduced the idea of several languages having a common root in the shape of a single language. This language model has been called Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and linguists nowadays use it to describe and explain patterns throughout a large group of languages throughout the world. Etymology is a part of this type of work. Contrary to popular opinion, etymology does not show the purest meaning of a word. Nor does viewing through etymological specs unravel that extra special, really real meaning of a word. What does etymology do then? A tour through the history of coup will, hopefully, show the point of travelling linguistic landscapes, and taking in the sights it has to offer.
The root of the word coup is found in the PIE root *kla-, which means ‘to hit’ or ‘to hew’3: a visceral offshoot of *kla- can be found in the Croatian verb klati, which means ‘to slaughter’ (animals, so people can eat them). A tamer Croatian derivative swings by in the shape of klatno, which means ‘pendulum’. In ancient Greek, the root form *kla- brought forth the word kolaphos (a slap with the hand). This naturally meant that the Romans had to import it (colaphus), and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us that colaphus eventually morphed into colp in the Old French language. Because Norman William I thought it would be a good idea to conquer England in back in 1066, French influences found their way into the English language from the eleventh century onward.
In Middle English - the time frame with minstrels, damsels, dragons and tights - coup is found as both a verb and a noun, in addition to being anglicised in their respective pronunciations. The verb was pronounced /kəʊp/ (‘cope’) and denoted facing someone on the battlefield, as is attested in the famous fifteenth century Morte d’Arthur. The figurative meaning that we are familiar with today (‘dealing with something’), including the phonetic spelling, didn’t emerge until the early twentieth century. The noun coup was pronounced as either /kəʊp/ (‘cope’) or /kaʊp/ (‘caup’) and was as literal as its verb counterpart: it signified either a stroke, or a meeting with another person, usually armed and intending to kill you. As with the verb, it took a couple of centuries for a more figurative meaning to emerge. This figurativeness was brought to us in the nineteenth century, in the shape of a wheelbarrow. The coup in question entailed the right to dump rubbish at a certain place, the so-called free-coup (it’s Scottish English), usually using a special cart.
The number of French borrowings since the Norman Conquest eventually subsided, and starting with the sixteenth century Renaissance words were borrowed from Latin and Greek rather than French. Surprisingly, it is here where contemporary coup’s (pronounced /ku:/, ‘coo’) history begins: It was reintroduced into the English language in the nineteenth century, as a direct loan from French, a derivative from the verb couper. The phrase in question was coup d’état, which the OED defines as “a sudden and decisive stroke of state policy”. David C. Rapaport rightly points out that there was no strict need to reintroduce the word into English, as the English language already had /kəʊp/ (‘cope’) and /kaʊp/ (‘caup’). His explanation is that the word /kəʊp/ (‘cope’) possibly lacked the suddenness that the word /ku:/ (‘coo’) did possess4. In other words, some borrowing from French was done for old times’ sake.
From the nineteenth century up to the present day, the word coup has primarily been known as a part of compound phrases, such as coup de théâtre (flashy and feisty ...like Tumblr), coup de foudre (which involves cooing), coup de main (you didn’t see them coming) and coup de grâce (what happens after you didn’t see them coming). Virtually all of these meanings are abstract, with a connotation of movement, and an accompanying notion of suddenness.
Coup, whether pronounced as /kəʊp/ (‘cope’), / kaʊp/ (‘caup’) or /ku:/ (‘coo’), whether imposed or borrowed, has been widely used in different contexts. Additionally, the word displays a range of grammatical categories as well as a semantical switch, throughout time, from a literal meaning to an abstract meaning. It proved to be cutting edge in delivering phrases as well as ditching the crap. As was noted at the beginning of this article, there is no need to search for some sort of authentic meaning of a word. That is not what linguistics is about. However, through reconstructing a root language that may have been spoken 5,500 years ago, words can be traced and placed. This leads to possible explanations why words are the way they are and how historical and societal circumstances influence the use of said words. Coup and words related to coup, through PIE, - kolaphos, colp, klati, klatno - display similar behaviour. Notwithstanding their respective meanings, these words have somehow retained a connotation of mobility and swiftness, bringing a sense of suddenness along. Coup will not be boxed, but remains somewhat of a brawler.
by Valeria Milić
1. William Henry Fox Talbot, English Etymologies (London: John Murray, 1847): 367
2. Isodore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville edited by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
3. Indo-European Lexicon, PIE Etymon and IE Reflexes, The University of Texas at Austin Linguistics Research Center
4. David, C. Rapoport , “Coup d’état: The View of the Men Firing Pistols,” English Etymologies edited by Carl J. Friedrich
(New York: Atherton Press, 2009): 59