Coup de What?

If anyone speaking American English on radio or TV uses the French pronunciation of coup de grâce, I must always be out of the room. (When I do hear it, it comes from the megaphones in online dictionaries, all of which voice the s sound that ends the word grâce.) More often than not, speakers from radio talkmeisters to Ivy League professors say “koo de GRAH.”

In its literal sense the term means “stroke of mercy” or “death blow to stop one’s suffering”; accordingly, when it dawned on Jules that Jacques was mortally wounded, he administered the coup de grâce* with his sword. Figuratively, this idiom has come to mean a decisive finishing act, event, or blow, as in “Charolotte’s rumored dalliance with the math teacher was the coup de grâce to her campaign for chairmanship of the Student Health Action Group.”

Koo duh GRAHS? Oui. Koo duh GRAH? Non. The reason this mispronunciation is so ill-advised is its switch from the word grâce to a vastly different one – gras (grah), which in its masculine form means “fat.” Who wants to be caught saying that a final blow of some sort came from – what? An untrimmed leg of lamb? On the other hand, the Americanization of various other French borrowings is of little or no import. Cases in point include coupon (KOO-pawn to KEW-pon), clique (kleek to klick), and chaise longue to chaise lounge (shayz long to chayz-lounj).

Take this soupçon of pronunciation education as you will, either expressing the s sound ending grâce or blowing it off and continuing to, so to speak, “chew the fat.”

October 1, 2014 Update: Whadda’ya know?! Tonight, someone on national TV actually voiced the “s” at the end of grâce – Congressman Gerry Solomon  of Virginia. What if the well-spoken gentleman planted a seed a few viewers might water by following suit? And better still, as friends of theirs do the same, the number of grâcers begins to bloom and grow? I’ll keep my ear to the ground: Usages change faster than ever in this wired-to-the teeth world, and it’s within the realm of possibility that Solomon’s correct pronunciation of grâce will, in time, present French teachers with a metaphorical rose or two.

*The little hat over the a in grâce – the circumflex – has nothing whatsoever to do with the pronunciation of the word’s last two letters. This and other diacritical marks (including the accent aigu, macron, and çedilla) will be the subject of a future Goodies Bag post. 

2 Responses to Coup de What?

  • Erik Kowal says:

    I wonder whether the ‘koo de GRAH’ pronunciation may be a hypercorrection to avoid uttering something that could be mistaken for ‘cut the grass’. (I have no direct evidence for this notion — it’s purely my speculation.)

    From my observation, English speakers in the UK are a lot less prone to this particular mispronunciation.

    I think the probable explanation is that a much larger proportion of the British population has learned at least some French in school compared with the American. By contrast, most natives of the USA know only a handful of French words and phrases, and so struggle to accurately pronounce whatever French words they may have encountered on the page or screen.

    It does not help that in French, many syllables can be spelled numerous ways (depending on what word they occur in), which further confounds those striving to reproduce them in speech.

  • Fred says:

    Erik:

    Think you’re right that about fewer French lessons in the States, but a dearth of phonetic spelling in French also explains why a surfeit of Americans struggle with so many of the language’s words — not to mention its oft-silent “e,” as in “forte.”

    I certainly won’t go around correcting anyone who says “coup de grah,” but I also won’t stop fighting for “grahs.” Dunno, but maybe the compulsion to push for the audible “s” is deep in my French Huguenot blood.

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