A weird error crossed my desk the other day and it was interesting enough that I’m devoting this post to it.
You’ve probably encountered both of these phrases: coup de grace and tour de force. A coup de grace (the circumflex—coup de grâce—is considered standard by most dictionaries, but for this post I’m encouraging an acceleration of Garner’s Law of Loanwords and have dropped it) is the literal death blow dealt to a dying opponent, or the figurative finishing stroke that puts an end to something. A tour de force originally indicated a great show of strength or power, but now commonly also describes a feat of great skill.
While originally French, both phrases have been used in English for a long time: coup de grace since just before 1700, tour de force since the first decade of the 19th century. They’ve been around long enough that it’s rare to see either italicized: you shouldn’t call them out that way, and the only reason I’ve done it is because that’s the style I use to emphasize the key words covered in a post.
In a story on CNN’s website on July 14th, this curious sentence appears (emphasis mine):
But the President’s tour-de-grace came during his suddenly announced solo news conference at the end of the NATO summit that sent reporters scrambling to make it into the room on time and wondering whether Trump would announce the US was leaving NATO after reports suggested he had threatened to do so earlier in the day.
(I’ve posted a screen shot just in case CNN goes back and corrects the error at some point.)
A few paragraphs in, the jumbled “tour-de-grace” appears, seeming to jam both tour de force and coup de grace together (also note that CNN uses hyphens to connect the individual words, a decision not endorsed by any dictionary I’ve consulted). “Tour de grace” is so unusual even as an error that I haven’t been able to find a single use in print…in the entire history of English writing. (They’re out there, so if anyone finds an example, please let me know.)
Knowing the definitions of both terms, what are we to make of this mishmash? I’m not even sure what to label it. Is it a malapropism? A mixed metaphor? A mixed idiom? A hybrid, sometimes called a malaphor? I’m at a loss because carefully reading the sentence in context doesn’t resolve the problem, which you can see if you try substituting either correct phrase for the incorrect one. Coup de grace doesn’t work, because there’s nothing being finished off. Tour de force doesn’t work, because there’s no show of force or skill—although I suppose one could argue that tour de force applies if it was meant ironically, but that doesn’t fit with the tone of the article.
Could this “error” have been intentional? Was the reporter trying to put across some meaning that neither phrase quite conveyed alone, but the hybrid did? I’m skeptical. So for now, I’m choosing to treat it as a simple error.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to the actual point of this post, which is really about using loan words and phrases from other languages. In general: (1) it’s usually good advice for writers to avoid using foreign words and phrases that have not been completely absorbed into their own language, and, (2) if you don’t know with certainty what a word or phrase means, then you shouldn’t use it.
English is a rich and varied language, in large part because it’s been busily borrowing and stealing words from other languages for over a millennium. There are, by conservative accounting, at least 200,000 words in the language, with all usages and forms pushing that number up by three to five times. So there’s a word on the books for just about everything currently known to human experience.
And when there isn’t a good word already in English? English goes out and beats up other languages to take what it wants. Or English users just make up new words. That’s how language works.
Peppering your writing with obscure foreign phrases may have once been a quick way to demonstrate your level of education, but in 2018 it’s hopelessly pretentious in most situations. Coup de grace and tour de force, specifically, are not new to the language and most users should understand them. If they fit and you don’t have anything better, go
right ahead. But if you don’t know what the words you’re about to use actually mean—maybe this writer did, maybe he didn’t—then you shouldn’t use them. Which, of course, goes for every word, not just foreign invaders. Considering how easy it is to look up a word, there’s no excuse for using one that you don’t understand and getting it wrong: if you’re not certain, take a minute to find out.
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Entirely Extraneous Notes:
The title “Tour de Grace” has occasionally been used for bicycle races, the most reliable of which is held in Vermont each July to benefit Grace Cottage Family Heath & Hospital. Some press sources may have referred to Grace Kelly’s tour of Monaco in 1962 as the “Tour de Grace.”
I’ve chosen not to discuss it in this post, but there is a phrase—coup de force—in English which means “a sudden, violent action” (OED). It’s documented but rare in British English, but so rare in American English that it isn’t in most dictionaries.