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I am looking for a translation of the French military term coup de main. (Not the common French civilian usage which translates as helping hand.) The term occurs frequently in the correspondence between Napoleon and his subordinate commanders, as something one should always look out for both on offense and defense. (See Saski: Campagne de 1809 en Allemagne et en Autriche, for examples.)

In context it refers to a quick victory or acquisition, inevitably by surprise, often bloodless or nearly so, and commonly on the run (meaning by simply not stopping or holding when expected to do so).

It seems to capture imagery from all of the English terms, but I am looking for a better single English term that comes closer than any of these:

  • Flick of the wrist (emphasising the quickness and adroitness);
  • Stealing a march (emphasizing the unexpectedness and surprise); and
  • snatch and run or grab and run (misses on the and run part).

Any thoughts?

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The British military term is undoubtedly coup de main, usually though not universally italicised as a formerly foreign term. The Wikipedia article on the Battle of Arnhem (chosen pretty much at random from dozens of examples) has "a troop of Reconnaissance jeeps from the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, under Major Frederick Gough on Leopard who would attempt a coup de main on the road bridge". Montgomery's dispatches at the time speak of "attempting a "coup de main"", which indicates that he was using a French phrase for want of a descriptive English one; but in the 70 years since the war it has been granted English nationality.

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If your audience is historians or laymen modestly read in history, it need not be translated; the French phrase itself is in wide use in the literature, and is sufficiently Anglicized that it need not be italicized.

Wikipedia suggests sucker punch, which is apt but emphatically colloquial—it will be read with quotes around it, whether or not you actually put them there. That's not necessarily a bad thing in contemporary historiography, but it should be taken into account.

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Hit and run may suit what you describe. It's generally used of drivers who have an accident and leave the scene quickly before they can be held accountable:

hit-and-run
denoting a person who causes accidental or wilful damage and escapes before being discovered, or damage caused in this way:
he was struck by a hit-and-run driver

[ODO]

As ODO notes, wilful damage is included and it can be used for a fast, surprise military attack followed by a quick exit.

Wikipedia on hit-and-run tactics

  • Thanks Andrew; I should have noted that Hit and Run misses because the Coup de Main is usually about hitting and sticking; not running. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 23 '13 at 18:41
  • @Pieter Er... "commonly on the run (meaning by simply not stopping or holding when expected to do so)" – Andrew Leach Nov 23 '13 at 18:47
  • Yes, I know I said that; I already up-voted you. ;-) Perhaps as WS2 points out the correct English idiom is coup de main. I simply am surprised to have never heard the phrase before I started to translate Saski, despite decades as a war gamer and amateur historian. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 23 '13 at 18:53
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    Perhaps run-and-hit would capture the essence, in allusion to hit-and-run, when a translation was truly necessary. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 23 '13 at 18:56
  • It is unclear from the references whether these are the same or different. They are certainly similar. The wiki entry on coup de main makes them sound different. Hit and run is to inflict casualties and leave the scene of battle quickly, not to claim a victory but just to demoralize the opponent, and coup de main is a short quick victory "by direct assault rather than by artillery". – Mitch Nov 23 '13 at 21:59
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In everyday parlance donner un coup de main à quelq'un, means 'to give someone a helping hand'.

But as regards the military term coup de main there really is no equivalent English expression. The fact that the term is used so frequently in English testifies to the absence of an equivalent, a bit like it's near namesake coup d'etat

At the start of the D-Day operations of 1944, the British assault, using glider-borne troops, on Pegasus Bridge, in order to help secure the airborne landings which protected the left flank of the main bridgehead, is regarded as a classic Coup de Main, and is sometimes referred to as Operation Coup de Main, but officially it is known as 'Operation Deadstick'.

  • I didn't know that about Pegasus (which I am familiar with ever since Memoir '44 came out). Operation Deadstick makes great a great name, as those vehicles glided about as well as the Space Shuttle - ie like a clay brick. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 23 '13 at 18:43
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    @PieterGeerkens It is regarded as having been one of the most remarkable pieces of flying in the whole war, and until recently, I feel sure I am right in saying, at least one of the pilots was still alive. They brought the gliders down very close to the bridge in near silence, and the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry guys immediately overpowered the guards. It was a crucially important bridge to hold as it enabled the airborne troops to maintain communications with the beach landings. – WS2 Nov 23 '13 at 19:05
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Like some others here, I'd use coup de main in English. I'll point out that my French is pretty bad, I know the term coup de main as an English-speaker, not as someone who is thinking in French.

I would also say, corps, sortie, rendezvous, coup d'état, aide-de-camp, esprit de corps, matériel along with other words and terms about military matters used in English which retain their obvious French origin, along with a great many (e.g. battalion, dragoon, infantry, cavalry, army, artillery, pistol, squadron, platoon, brigade, volley, siege, terrain, troop, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, colonel and so on) where the French origin is not quite as blatant, some of which have changed in the course of their Anglicisation.

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From North American Football: Run and Gun, Hurry-up offense

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  • Sabotage
  • Coordinated attack
  • Coordinated strike
  • Covert operations

A declassified field manual from Strategic Services (now CIA) notes: Sabotage varies from highly technical coup de main acts that require detailed planning and the use of specially trained operatives, to innumerable simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform.

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