Coup de pouce: A French expression you may hear today

Former prime minister Edouard Philippe could be described as giving a ‘coup de pouce’ to President Macron after he launched a new political party, ‘Horizons’, on Saturday (October 9). We explain more and the meaning of the phrase..

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today

Mr Philippe, the current mayor of Le Havre, says the party’s immediate goal is to support president Macron in the 2022 presidential elections.

He defended his unconventional decision to employ a ‘logique de partenariat’ - a partnership approach - which allows supporters to have double political membership.

But what does giving someone a ‘coup de pouce’ (literally ‘a grip of the thumb’) mean?

It means to help them, especially in the form of a hidden, indirect intervention and perhaps an English equivalent would be ‘to give a helping hand’, although a closer translation of this expression already exists (‘donner un coup de main’).

The word ‘coup’ has various meanings in French, including a blow, a grip, and a drink.

This expression was coined around the 19th century.

Some sources claim that it derives from the Occitan – a language spoken in southern Europe and particularly southern France – ‘còp de pos’ which means ‘a push’.

Indeed, ‘pouce’ does seem to be a pun on the word ‘pousser’ (‘to push’).

The thumb, which allows us to grasp objects and thus differentiates us from most animals, represents action.

In fact, according to the dictionary Trésor de la langue française, a previous version of ‘donner un coup de pouce’ - ‘donner le coup de pouce’ - meant ‘to strangle’ in the early 19th century.

Here, the ‘use of the thumb’ would be quite literal – against somebody’s neck.

This symbolism also explains why the expression ‘se tourner les pouces’ – to twiddle one’s thumbs – evokes boredom or idleness. If you don’t have anything to do with your thumbs, you don’t have anything to do at all.

Another expression using ‘pouce’ is ‘manger sur le pouce’ (literally ‘to eat on the thumb’) which means to eat quickly.

It is said that in the 19th century, labourers would use their knives – and subsequently thumbs – a lot when eating. Their meals had to be eaten quickly due to a lack of time, which gave rise to the expression we commonly hear today.

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