The French word that can mean a drink, a punch, a helping hand and much more beside

The French word that can mean a drink, a punch, a helping hand and much more beside
This word can fill up a whole page in the dictionary with its usage. Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash
If you're listening to everyday French chat there is one four-letter word that pops up repeatedly, in a bewildering array of different meanings.

If you look up coup in French dictionary Larousse you will learn that its primary definition is “rapid and brutal shock resulting from the movement of a body hitting another, and, in particular, shock given with a part of the body or with an instrument”.

As such it's usually translated into English as a knock, a punch or a blow.

But a good dictionary will then list a dizzying array of phrases which feature the word coup – all of which mean something different and very few of which refer to an actual physical blow.

Although it translates as a punch or  blow, most phrases involving coup do not involve an actual knockout punch. Photo: AFP

And that's even before we get onto the word's secondary meanings.

So here's a look at some of the most common French phrases with coup.

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See also on The Local:

Du coup – the most commonly used coup phrase actually means pretty much nothing at all. It's one of those phrases that French people frequently pepper their conversations with, yet if you take out the du coup the phrase means basically the same thing. In that sense it's similar to 'like' being dropped into English sentences at, like, a random point. 

Its translation in this context is 'as a result of' or 'due to' so you can say

Les robots toujours presents dans notre travail: mais du coup, quels seront les metiers et competences du futur? – Robots are becoming increasingly present in the workplace: so, what will be the trades and skills of the future?

But the same sentence also works in roughly the same way without a du coup.

Les robots toujours presents dans notre travail: mais, quels seront les metiers et competences du futur? – Robots are becoming increasingly present in the workplace: but what will be the trades and skills of the future?

Coup de main – with coup's primary meaning of a blow this at first sounds like you're punching someone, but that's actually not what it means at all (coup de poing is the phrase you're looking for to describe giving someone a punch). Coup de main means to give someone a helping hand, as in

Tu peux me donner un coup de main demain matin? – Can you give me a hand tomorrow morning?

If you don't want to give someone a whole hand you can give them a coup de pouce (a thumb) which means steering someone in the right direction, but not actually physically helping them.

Coup de – the next few phrases all refer to coup's meaning of a hit or a blow, but all in cases it's not an actual physical blow, just a metaphorical one. They're almost always paired with avoir (to have).

Coup de barre (hit by a bar) means being suddenly hit with an overwhelming feeling of tiredness.

Je ne sais pas ce que j'ai, j'ai un coup de barre – I don't know what's wrong with me, I feel exhausted all of a sudden 

Coup de foudre – this one will be familiar to English speakers and unlike some French phrases which we export into English (sacré bleu, for example, is rarely said in France by people aged under 90) this one is widely used in France too.

Literally meaning 'struck by lightening' it refers to falling suddenly, helplessly and head-over-heels in love.

En chemin, il croise une inconnue, et c'est le coup de foudre – On the way he met a stranger and it's love at first sight

Have you been hit by the punch of love? Photo: AFP

Coup de coeur – this also means suddenly falling in love, but is more usually used if the object of your affection is a thing – fabulous shoes in the shop window, a book that really spoke to you, an apartment that is just perfect.

Elle a vraiment eu un coup de coeur pour la robe – She really fell in love with the dress.

Coup de bol – literally translating as being hit by a bowl, this means having a sudden stroke of luck.

I'ai eu un coup de bol, il restait de la place pour le concert  – I was lucky, there were still some tickets left for the concert

It's also quite often used on its own too as coup de bol or quel coup to bol to mean Phew, how lucky was that?

Coup de fil – this one means to make a phone call and does actually make sense if you remember how phones used to work. It translates to 'hit the wire'

Un simple coup de fil suffit et nous organisons la livraison – Just one phone call and we will arrange delivery.

Coup d'état – this is another one that will be familiar to English speakers as it's frequently used around the globe to signify a rebellion, usually armed, against a government.

Ca vaut le coup – translating as 'worth the blow' this means something is worth doing or worth it.

Même si l'apprentissage semble difficile, la plupart d'entre elles disent que ça vaut le coup – Even though it may seem hard to learn, most people agree that it was worth the effort.

Boire un coup – this is a casual way of inviting someone out for a drink. Coup in this context refers to a historic measure of liquid, so it's roughly the same as a British person saying 'fancy a pint'? You can also use boire un verre or prendre  un verre if you want to invite people for a drink.

Tu veux boire un coup après? – You fancy a drink later? 


Two similar looking but different words are une coupe – a cup – most frequently heard in Coupe de monde (world cup) and the verb couper – to cut – which can also be used as une coupe (a cut).

J'ai vraiment besoin d'une coupe de cheveux – I really need a haircut

A few more

We asked The Local's readers for help with this one and asked people to tell us their favourite coup phrase.

We got dozens of suggestions and, because our readers are fun, the most commonly-suggested phrases were sexual ones.

Tirer un coup – to have sex. This is very colloquial and would probably translate into English as something like 'a quickie' or 'getting your leg over' so we'd suggest avoid using it with someone who you hope to persuade to spend the rest of their life with you.

Un coup d'un soir – a one-off sexual experience or the fine old tradition of a one-night stand.

In the same vein un bon coup/un mauvais coup is a casual way of saying someone is good/bad in bed. Roughly equivalent to describing someone as a good lay or a lousy lay.

Ben oui, il est beau, mais j'ai entendu dire que c'est un mauvais coup – Sure, he's cute but I hear he's lousy in bed.

Some of the other suggestions from readers included

Un sale coup – a 'dirty blow' or more accurately a stroke of bad luck or attempted set-up. 

Coup d'essai – an attempt. Rugby fans will be familiar with un essai (a try) and coup d'essai means making an attempt or trying to do something.

Coup de soleil – the rather dramatic sounding 'hit of sun' simply means sunburn.

Tu me passes la crème solaire, s'il te plaît ? Je n'ai pas envie d'attraper un coup de soleil. – Could you pass me the sunscreen, please? I don't want to get a sunburn.

Coup d'oeil – a 'hit of eye' or a rapid look or glimpse of something. You will quite often see it as part of au premier coup d'oeil – at first glance.

Coup de sang – the 'hit of blood' is not quite as grisly as it sounds and refers to a sudden rise of adrenaline or emotion in a stressful situation. In English you might use the somewhat similar 'a rush of blood to the head'.

Coup du lapin – this might come in handy if you're unfortunate enough to be involved in a car accident – it means whiplash. So un système de réduction du coup du lapin is anti-whiplash technology. 

Coup de grisou – a mine explosion. This one you probably won't use too much in everyday conversation, unless you are a miner of course, but it's worth including because it's one of the few phrases where the blow or blast of coup is a littoral one. It refers to explosions in mines, usually caused by a build-up of gases such as methane, which in English is sometimes called firedamp.

Thank you very much to everyone who contributed to this article.







Member comments

  1. In the last example in the article I assume “littoral” should read “literal”.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Not very elegant but you forgot “coup d’un soir”
    A one night stand..There are other “coup” in the same vain, I’ll let others figure them out!
    John A

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