February, 2015

Overused vocab you probably never use: du coup

du coup

So…um…like, yeah, well, you know, so anyway…and yeah…interesting blog post…and done.

I’m sure there are all kinds of socio-linguistic reasons for filler words (that I’m inclined not to look up because…hey…Oscars are on tv, and who doesn’t love listening to ritualized thank you list recitation couched in a self-congratulatory three-to-four hour spectacle?), but what intrigues me is how the inane repetition of unnecessary words (and some barely qualify as words) can bring you closer to “native” quality speech. And conversely, how one…euh…how you say…misuse of filler can make you sound foreign despite otherwise impeccable grammar and vocabulary.

French 101 classes have been teaching “euh” (to replace the American “um”) and “bon ben” (kind of “ok…well”), “bof” (to express indifference “whatever”) and others for years now, but I think “du coup” flies under the radar of most American students and teachers. Go eavesdrop on some Parisians, however, and you’ll hear “du coup” punctuating the dead spots of stories with almost the same frequency that an American says “like” or “you know” or “so”.

See if you can hear it in this gamer-dude’s Youtube vid:

If you weren’t too distracted by the virtuoso use of steadycam (rivaling Birdman or Russian Ark), you may have noticed “du coup” and “alors du coup.” But what does it mean? Why are people suddenly using it so much? Should you start to say it? Can you even say it?

What does it mean?

Let’s see what French people are saying over at “” where user Guillaume asks how to translate 

“Cette fille est laide. Du coup, je ne m’étais jamais intéressé à elle.”

He ends up with “Thus, I had never been interested in her.” ok…so…that…sounds…fluent. Yeah, “thus” . Just use “du coup” wherever you would use “thus”.

Let’s try another approach. Here’s a tweet that uses “du coup”

This basically says, “ok, so…got to go, so, night.”

Some people might say that “du coup” is  “suddenly” (like in “tout d’un coup”) or “consequently”, but the way it’s being used these days is more vague and less forceful, like “so…” Chances are, if you take “du coup” out of an average conversation, you won’t lose anything.

Why are people suddenly using it so much?

I don’t know. But a blog post by French pulp fiction/crime writer Claudine Chollet suggests that by 2006 it had reached epidemic status (her first sentence: L’expression “du coup” se propage actuellement comme un virus et contamine toutes les conversations.) Read the comments section of her post and you get the impression that it’s cyclical. An 80 year-old woman says that when she was young, she was taught that commoners used that expression. For 60 years, she claims, it disappeared, only to resurface and torment her again.

Should you start to say it? 

Probably not. Mme Chollet calls “du coup” a form of intellectual manipulation—an impostor of “consequently” that presupposes your agreement with dubious logic. Yeah, but I don’t care about lexical morality, you say. Oh. In that case, it depends on your answer to the next question.

Can you even say it?

Most anglophones have trouble with the “u”  [y] and “ou” [u] in du coup—especially in such close proximity. If you have to make a conscious effort to say something that functions as an unconscious tick, maybe not. On the other hand, if you can say it three times fast with a great accent and an effortless sloppiness, then go for it. Spread the virus.

The American football

I’ve never kept it a secret, but I’ve never been too vocal about it, either: I don’t really care much about sports in general. I don’t hate them, by any means, but I just don’t get the appeal– especially watching sports, and not playing. It’s like this new thing the kids are apparently doing, where they watch videos of other people playing video games. I cannot fathom it.

But I live in Seattle, and last week it was important that I keep even my benign, baffled indifference to myself, because (as you may have heard) my fair city is obligatorily melded into a massive hive-mind which calls itself TWELFTH MAN and emits noises of support from its million mouths whenever the Seahawks are doing their thing, and they did their thing at the highest level in the land on Sunday.

At the same time as the most Super of Bowls was underway, I was looking for something to write about here on– Marc and I are going to start posting again or die trying– and suddenly it occurred to me: a lot of French people are crazy about sports, but probably not so much about US of American football. So whatever coverage of the Super Bowl existed in French was sure to be hilarious, right?

And so began my descent into the rabbit hole of French-language coverage of le football américain.


Some cursory googling took me first to an article in Le Monde: “Super Bowl : l’annus horribilis du football américain“. When’s the last time you saw a Latin phrase in an English-language article about football? That’s what I thought. While the article is less about the big game than a run-down of what a tough (well, éprouvante) year it’s been for the NFL (with some abusive players getting caught, negative cognitive effects suffered by long-time footballers, and racist team names getting called out, to name a few troubles the poor NFL faces), what most surprised me was that I enjoyed reading it.

Gilles Paris, a correspondent situated in Washington (whether city or state, le Monde declines to state), weaves in some turns of phrase that just… well, they’ve got a certain, for lack of a better expression, je ne sais quoi. When he writes, “Roger Goodell a convenu qu’il lui avait fallu faire preuve d’« humilité » au cours de la saison. La machine à cash que continue à être la NFL constitue cependant pour lui une protection plus efficace que celles dont sont bardés les guerriers des pelouses“, I enjoy the dripping sarcasm, the half-anglicism “machine à cash” and its insertion grâce à the object-introducing relative pronoun que, the judicious use of dont. 

So is French just so elegant and refined that it can turn a field of sweating, perma-concussed gladiators into something beautiful? Have I discovered a latent love for American football that only the lens of the French language could unlock?

I don’t think so. I’m sure Gilles (I like to imagine him as a crew-cut, bull-necked dude in a striped black and white shirt and a scarf, speaking English like a French Alabaman and pronouncing his first name “Gil” and rhyming his last name with “Ferris”) is a fine writer, but I’m betting most of my (admittedly dorky) enjoyment of the prose comes from my enjoyment of having learned the language and being able to read about unfamiliar topics in it. Reading more articles, on Le Monde and elsewhere, confirmed this suspicion. 

But ultimately, isn’t that a great reason to learn a language? Learning French opens up so much of the world to you, including some things that were right here all along.

Before I go, I would be remiss in my co-authorly duties if I didn’t update you on the progress of our ongoing efforts to make What The French?! available in Amazon’s Kindle format (for all non-Mac users). So the update is: it’s getting close. I know it’s been getting close for a long time now, but it is currently more close than it was at any of those previous times. We’re sorry about the wait, but we want to make sure we can translate all the iBooks features and functions into the new format.

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