Wednesday, October 19, 2005

French Particularities No. 7: Les 400 Coups

'Les 400 Coups' is one of Truffaut's great films, the history of a young, independent-minded boy who ends up in reform school. I imagine the title is a word play referring not only to the 400 physical and mental 'blows' that the child receives during his troubled life but also to the very common use of the word 'coup' in the formation of French phrases. In fact, it is difficult to separate the two meanings since the 400 blows that the boy suffers would probably each have their own descriptive phrase beginning with the word 'coup'. However, not all of the 'coups' would necessarily be 'mauvais' (bad) blows, rather they would suggest how 'life', in all its various guises, buffets him along.

In a similar vein, the French socialist party is currently celebrating the '100 Jours de Villepin' with 'Un Mauvais Coup par Semaine' in which they have a dig at the French Prime Minister by presenting a new policy-failure 'issue' each week. The 100 days originates from Villepin's own pledge when he came to power to fix France in 100 days. The previous encumbant of Prime Minsterial office, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was also given 100 days to fix things before he was told to walk. Why 100 days? Well, it's a nice round number and while seeming an impressively short time to fix a country as large as France, it is also just long enough for most people to forget that once-upon-a-time you ever made such a promise in the first place.

Not all of the 'coup' phrases are negative or 'mauvais' however. Some of them simply describe things that happen suddenly, like the 'blow' of a hammer for example. Others phrases have positive connotations such as 'coup de cœur' which means to suddenly fall in love with someone or something. Here are a few examples of the 'coup' phrases where the word 'coup' usually denotes events that happen suddenly or briskly.

Coup d'état: overthrow of a government by a small group, often being part of the same power structure. Distinct from a revolutionary overthrow of the government. Lots of examples on Wikipedia here.

Coup de gueule: Letting off steam (literally a 'blow of the gob').

Coup de main: in French this phrase means 'a helping hand'. In English, however, according to Wikipedia the phrase has the more negative significance of 'a sudden and swift attack'. How the former transformed into the latter is difficult to comprehend. (avoir le coup de main: to have the knack)

Coup de grâce: means a 'blow of mercy', or a death-blow. It refers to the mercy killing which ends the suffering of a mortally wounded creature. It can also refer to an act that brings about drastic change. There's an amusing little comment on Wikipedia concerning the mispronunciation of this phrase by English-speaking people here.

Coup de boost: what you do to increase the traffic on your blog...

Coup de pouce: an elicit bribe.

Coup de foudre: lightning.

Coup de soleil: sun burn

Coup de chapeau: to acknowledge someone's achievement (literally 'to touch your hat to someone').

Coup d'oeil: a glimpse or glance. (avoir le coup d'oeil: to have a good eye)

Coup de fil: (donner un coup de fil: give someone a quick phone call.)

Coup de peigne: to run a comb through your hair.

Coup de cœur: to fall in love with someone or something, much overused by estate agents...

Coup de dés: a 'rencontre coup de dés' is a blind date.

Coup de poing: a punch.

Coup de crayon: a stroke of a pencil.

Coup de plume: a stroke of a pen.

Coup de pinceau: a stroke of a brush.

Coup de grisou: a firedamp explosion.

Coup de marteau: a blow of a hammer.

Couple de bambou: literally a bamboo stroke but used to mean that something is painfully expensive (thank you Lesley for pointing this one out).

And there's a lot more 'coups', which maybe I'll get round to translating one of these days...

Leave your own 'coups' in the comments box if you know some more...

Coup de théâtre / Coup d'arrêt / Coup d'accélérateur / Coup de massue / Coup de pompe/ Coup d'esquive / Coup de bluff / Coup de fusil / Coup de frein / Coup de fourchette / Coup de torchon / Coup de jeune / Coup de colère / Coup de projecteur / Coup de blues / Coup de vent / Coup de filet/ Coup de balai / Coup de froid / Coup de chaleur / Coup de poker / Coup de griffe / Coup de force / Coup de sabre / Coup de fatigue / Coup de cochon / Coup de pinceau /


Andrea said...

failed french, cant help here.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps point out the more common usage of coup de foudre! (I was thinking of Lesley and Piers Faccini)!

Translations always so difficult because it would take pages to add who, and it what circumstances they would be used. I suppose you just pick it up as you go along.

Sometimes I ask my children who are more French than English and they say things like, oh, that expression is only used by les ploucs à la radio. Exhausting.