Learning French: the many flexible uses of the word 'coup'

The flexible word can be used with many different expressions

Having these expressions in your lexical arsenal can help you stand out from other French learners
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Certain words in French are incredibly flexible, with apparently endless possible meanings, and that is certainly true of coup

Usually meaning a blow or a thump, some uses are quite straightforward, as with a coup de pied: a blow from the foot – or, in other words, a kick. 

It can be hard to catch in speech, as the three words blend together into what sounds like ‘coot-pyay’. 

You would be forgiven, then, for reasoning that a coup de main would be a punch, like a blow from the hand, but this is where French starts to play tricks that are often frustrating for us non-native speakers. 

A coup de main is most frequently used to mean a helping hand: merci pour le coup de main

However, it can also be used to describe manual dexterity and being good with your hands (Pour fabriquer les guitares, il faut le coup de main) and if you lose your coup de main, you’ve lost your touch.

 Read more: Watch out for the many French verbs ‘to walk’ - they can trip you up

Coup... at a glance

And possibly my favourite variation on this is the coup d’oeil, because how do you give a thump of the eye? It’s an odd one when you hear it, sounding rather like ‘coo-doy’, even more so if preceded by petit, which gets swallowed up and becomes ‘tee-coo-doy’.

This one is all about a glance or a quick look, and can be literal or metaphorical. If you say, je vais jeter un coup d’oeil à l’étage, you’re going to take a quick peek upstairs, but you can also say that you asked a colleague for help, and that she understood the problem immediately: elle a compris le souci d’un coup d’oeil.

One more progression of this is to use the expression with valoir (to be worth something). If you feel that something is worth having a look at, you can declare, je crois que ça vaut le coup d’oeil. There are so many variations on this one word, but if you want to look online to learn more, ça vaut le coup: it is well worth it!