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Pardon? - French expressions featuring "coup"

Pardon? - French expressions featuring "coup"

Emma-Jane Lee, our language expert, takes a break to explore more French expressions…


If you are learning another language, it’s worthwhile focusing on those words that have many different meanings. Not only are they very useful, but they are easily confused.

When it comes to words in French, few are as plentiful in meaning as the word coup. From the figurative through to the informal and even the downright rude. Like the word ‘break’ in English, which gives us expressions from ‘taking a break’ right through to ‘breaking a leg’, and even helps us ‘break our fast’ in the morning, coup is found in many places too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there are as many expressions with knock, blow and punch in English. You wouldn’t be able to knock me down with a feather!

Often, the word means a blow, a bang or a knock. But it is found in phrases that have no real connection to the word any longer. Take the often-heard du coup which can mean ‘as a result’ or ‘therefore’ and can often be replaced by the word donc. You might also hear tout à coup which means ‘suddenly’.

One of the most frequently heard variations of coup is to do with alcohol and if you boire un coup, you aren’t drinking a bang, you are having a drink. Lots of other expressions with coup refer to the meaning of a drink. If you have a bang in the nose in French, you have probably drunk too much. Avoir un coup dans le nez. I guess we might say ‘four sheets to the wind’ in English, or ‘pickled’.

Body parts and punches often go hand in hand with coup. Feet, thumbs, heads, eyes and hands are the most used to give a smack. If you give someone a whack of the hand, you are really helping them out as donner un coup de main means to lend a helping hand. If you change one word and donner un coup de pied though, you are kicking them, so be careful!

To give someone a helping inch and donner un coup de pouce, you are giving them a boost, helping them out a little. Of course, pouce means both ‘inch’ and ‘thumb’. Un coup de tête, or a whack of the head, can often be a headbutt. However, if you act on a headbutt, or agir sur un coup de tête, you are acting on a whim or an impulse. Un coup d’œil means to cast your eye about, give something a glance over, so of course you jeter un coup d’œil to cast your eye over things.


A term that is often heard these days in French is un coup du lapin or a rabbit punch. The traditional way to kill a rabbit, of course, is to hit it across the back of the neck, and thus it gave rise to any kind of movement that might injure your spine at the neck. More simply put, it’s whiplash.
The weather can often deal you an unexpected blow. Un coup de soleil or a punch from the sun is ‘sunburn’. Un coup de foudre or a clap of lightning can also be used to express falling in love. Love at first sight! 

Perhaps you are doing the four hundred punches, faire les quatre cents coups which goes back to an old attack on Montauban during the reign of Louis XIII where the town came under siege and faced down four hundred cannon shots. Now it means to live a life of no good, to live without morals or to be a bit of a party animal, but it can also mean getting up to mischief. 

Another interesting expression is un coup d’épée dans l’eau which translates literally as a sword jab in water. Of course, using a sword to attack water is pointless and a complete waste of time, rather like ‘flogging a dead horse’.

Giving a stab of the beak might sound more akin to henpecking than it does to gossiping, but donner un coup de bec is an expression used to mean gossiping about somebody behind their back in a malicious or cruel way.
Finally, once you have got the knack of all of this, you will have attrapé le coup or caught the shot.

There are many, many expressions and phrases with the word coup, making it a very useful addition to your vocabulary. Where language is concerned, you should roll with the punches. You might be blown over, even have your mind blown if you take a shot at it but hopefully it will not be a stab in the dark any longer!


Emma is a jack-of-all-language-trades, writing English textbooks, translating, marking exam scripts and teaching languages. She lives near La Rochefoucauld with her growing menagerie. See