Each time I stay in France for an extended period, I become aware of a new expression that’s infiltrated the language. Just as the occasional sojourner in America might be surprised to discover woke or the ubiquity of like, I’ve found myself suddenly hearing a phrase I thought I understood, used with almost alarming frequency in contexts that don’t quite add up.
This time, the phrase du coup, which technically means “at a blow” or “suddenly,” most familiar to French language learners from the expression tout d’un coup, now echoes from sidewalk cafés, métro trains, meeting rooms, and hallways.
On ne sort pas ce soir. On fait quoi du coup?
We’re not going out tonight. So then what do we do?
il ne veut pas manger de salade, du coup je fais des haricots.
He doesn’t want to eat salad, so I’ll cook green beans.
Je suis hors du coup.
I’m out of it.
Du coup je suis responsable.
So now I’m in charge.
Et donc, du coup, j’ai terminé le projet.
And so, in effect, I’ve terminated the project.
Du coup, on va pouvoir planifier un rendez-vous.
In that case, we’ll be able to plan a rendezvous.
It was a relief to discover I wasn’t alone in suspecting this once-meaningful phrase had become a discourse marker. The French, so often devoted to prescriptivism (I’m looking at you, l’Académie Française), have had a field day recently with the proliferation of du coup. Writing in Le Figaro, Quentin Périnel, the “bureaulogue,” suspects that his readers screamed at the sight of a headline proposing to examine du coup:
To face great evils requires great means. I would say even more: very great evils, very great means, since the language tic inspiring me this week feeds your daily anxieties in the office. “Du coup” at the beginning of the sentence, “du coup” at the end of the sentence ... The greatest champions can use it three times in the same sentence or a hundred times during the same meeting. Du coup, it was high time to stage a coup. First observation: by ear, it’s not so easy to know what we are talking about. By the neck (le cou)? Unless it’s cost (coût)? Or maybe suddenly (du coup)?. . . It’s a language tic that stifles conversation and prevents any possibility of debate. Du coup, it makes you seem a boor with a high opinion of himself.
Writing from Canada in Brain, Vincent Glad observes that widely sprinkled du coups are the sure sign of a French traveler.
This improper expression that’s contaminated our language for several decades has become the symbol of the French in Quebec. In the streets of Montréal, people sometimes mockingly call us “the du coups.” That’s certainly better than “the whores,” another distinctive label for the French, but in the end it’s not something to be proud of.
As one of his Quebecois interlocutors put it, “They [the French] don’t know exactly what they mean and still they use it all the time. That amuses us because we never say it. When I was young, if you wanted to imitate a Frenchman, you used a sort of pig Latin or you repeated expressions from French films. Now it’s easy to imitate a Frenchman: It suffices to say du coup.”
In 2014, du coup had already become so ubiquitous that the Académie Française did indeed weigh in, writing:
The adverbial phrase “du coup” was once used in its proper sense: A fist hit him and he fell “from the blow.” Since then, we have used it to introduce the consequence of an event: A tire burst and “all of a sudden” the car skidded. But as usage guides indicate, the term expresses “the idea of a cause acting suddenly,” and to its causal value is thus added a temporal value conveying quasi-simultaneity. “Du coup” is thus very close to “immediately.” We must not, then, use “du coup,” as we often hear, in place of “therefore” or “consequently.” We must also avoid making “du coup” a simple adverb of speech without particular meaning.
Good luck with that. Even though, as the French writer Claudine Chollet has observed, the expression poisons intellectual discourse because it “has the appearance of a logical expression but hides any real argument [as to cause and effect] in order to win approval from others,” du coup is not going away. I’ve decided to treat it much as I do the omnipresent sound of pigeons tucked into the recesses of Paris’s old buildings. Du coup! they call. Du coup, du coup, du coup, du coup!