Word of the Day: Coup

Jul 25, 2016 01.00PM |

by Tan Chu Chze

PAUSE and stare at the word for a bit, and you’ll realise how tiny it is. It’s just four-letters long, and you only pronounce three: “Koo”. You might even try to drag the “oo” out to make it sound extra French. Still, the word slips easily from our lips.

The word appears to understate the magnitude of what it signifies. Most uses of the word “coup” actually refer to “coup d’etats” (pronounced “koo day-ta”, not “coop dee-at-tats”), but, even the latter half of the phrase is often omitted – almost like it didn’t matter. The meaning of the word though, is not to be taken lightly. In its origin, “coup” refers to a strike or blow. Taken together as “coup d’etat”, it means a sudden and violent seizure of the government, as if one were striking the government. Such a small word for such a big idea.

But what is an even bigger deal is pulling off a live coup. It is definitely much harder than pronouncing the word right. Just look at the recent attempt in Turkey. Even with the support of 60,000 people including soldiers, policemen, judges and civil servants, their coup was a poop. And that was in spite of having all the makings of a classic coup.

First, they (whoever the mystery masterminds are) had military backing. Almost every coup in the history of toppling leadership has had soldiers involved. You only have to look to Thailand or even Indonesia for some examples. But why is the army always so kaypoh? Isn’t it supposed to be defending its country?

That is part of the problem. As part of a state’s defense system, the military has direct control over big guns. In fact it probably looks after all of its state’s biggest guns. And because it has so much muscle and firepower, it can, well, put up a fight. One big enough for the government to back out from. What defenses can a government have against its own army? Not much.

So uniformed, armed men invariably get entangled in coups and coup attempts. It’s part of what makes a “coup” a “coup”. Thankfully, having guns involved doesn’t mean there will always be killing involved. Sometimes these attempts to kick out a government can happen rather smoothly and peacefully, thus, earning itself the honour of being called a “bloodless” coup and not a “heartless” one.

Anyhow, convincing the military to break the law and attack the government is just the first step. After muscling oneself into the government comes the mammoth task of running it. That means the “coup-prit” needs fingers and toes in government institutions – civil servants and administrators who can hit the ground running if and when the coup succeeds. Not only that, a coup with any hope would probably hijack the media too. That’s important for getting the public on board with its new leaders, if at all.

With much consideration and coordination needed to bring together a “coup”, it’s no wonder the word takes on a second meaning – an instance of successfully achieving something difficult. This kind of coup doesn’t necessarily involve armed forces removing government officials from their posts, but it does draw from the pride and accomplishment of having done so.

In that case, it’s no contradiction for the Turks to say the coup was not a coup at all.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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