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The OED doesn't expound. Etymonline:

1620s, from French recouper "to cut back" (12c.), from Old French re- "back" (see re-) + couper "to cut," from coup "a blow" (see coup). Originally a legal term meaning "to deduct;" sense of "to recompense for loss or expense" first recorded 1660s. [...]

I obviously can't substitute 'to deduct' or 'cut back' for 'recoup', as then sentences like the beneath would mean something else.

Paul Richards. Law of Contract (Foundation Studies in Law Series) (2019 14 edn).

The authority for the rule at common law can also be found in the case of Britton v Royal Insurance Co. (1866) 4 F & F 905 [online here] where Willes J stated:

A fire insurance, he said, is a contract of indemnity; that is, it is a contract to indemnify the assured against the consequences of a fire, provided it is not wilful. Of course, if the assured set fire to his house, he could not recover. That is clear. But it is not less clear that, even supposing it were not wilful, yet as it is a contract of indemnity only, that is, a contract to recoup the insured the value of the property destroyed by fire, if the claim is fraudulent, it is defeated altogether. That is, suppose the insured made a claim for twice the amount insured and lost, thus seeking to put the office off its guard, and in the result to recover more than he is entitled to, that would be a wilful fraud, and the consequence is that he could not recover anything

  • 3
    Doesn't "recoup" mean to get something back, whereas "recompense" means to make up for a loss? – Weather Vane May 11 at 18:13
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    Your own OED citations defines ‘recoup’ in the “sense of "to recompense for loss or expense". That’s the same meaning the word is used in today. So you paraphrase your example as “... a contract to recompense the insured for the loss or expense of the value of the property destroyed by fire.” No semantic shift needs to be assumed. – Richard Z May 11 at 18:24
  • @RichardZ I'm uncertain if this answers my question. You're substituting the modern meaning of 'recoup', but I substantiated how I failed to substitute its older meaning: this failure proves a semantic shift. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal May 11 at 18:51
  • @WeatherVane OED aforementioned avouches "4a. To compensate for, recover (a loss or outlay)." – Greek - Area 51 Proposal May 11 at 18:53
  • Why the downvote? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal May 11 at 18:53
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+50

Anglo-Norman (the French spoken in England) already had both meanings, and so English inherited them.

The law dictionary Termes de la Ley (originally printed and authored by John Rastell in 1527; new editions published in twenty-nine editions up to 1819 (Tarlton Law Library)) features this use of recoup in the 1685 edition, as archived on Early English Books Online:

AGent & Patient is, when a man is the doer of a thing and the party to whom it is done; as where a Woman en∣dows her self of the fairest pos∣session of her husband. So if a man hath ten pounds issuing out of certain land, and he disseises the Tenant of the Land in an Assise brought by the Disseisee, the Disseisor shall recoup the Rent in the damages; so that where the mean profits of the land in such case were to the va∣lue of 13 l. the Disseisee shall re∣cover but three pounds. (p. 33)

In other words, the person seizing land (the Disseisor) shall retain the rent owed by the Tenant while also paying the previous land owner (the Disseisee) the remaining sum of money. Recoup already means this here (meaning 2 in the OED).

Meanwhile, a usage of French recoup in the text means much the same thing:

car lou le Grantor doit receive xx.li. damages, & pay x.li Rent, il puit aver receive forsq̄ le xli. solem̄t p̄ les damages, & le Grantee puit aver recoup. & retaine arere le aut' x.l. ē ses maines {per} voy de deteiner pur son Rent, & issint {per} ycel poet aver save son Action. (p. 144)

because the Grantor must receive 20 pounds damages, and pay 10 pounds rent, he has the power to have received only the 10 pounds alone for damages, and the Grantee can have recouped and retained back again the other 10 pounds out of these left for the purpose of withholding on account of his rent, and thus like that equally this one has the power to have saved his law suit. (Translation my own; apologies for errors)

The grantee recoups and retains the 10 pounds that he otherwise would've been paid for rent. So at least in Termes de la Ley, the earlier meaning of recoup is preserved.

When did the meaning shift to meaning recompense? I focus on Termes de la Ley because it shows that English and French usages of recoup are strongly connected. A similar thing is true for the recompense meaning of recoup. Recoup could have meant recompense in French as early as the 15th century. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary places this meaning of recoup ("to recompense") in the 15th century:

[finan.] to recompense: demaundant dower quar eux ne purrount estre recoupés en l'accion d'acompt Readings 195. (Readings and Moots at the Inns of Court, ed. S. E. Thorne, Selden Soc. 71 (1952). date: c.1420-1489)

So English legal clerks, writing in both Anglo-Norman and English, would have been familiar with the recompense meaning already. So when legal translations of older law, written in French, are translated or recast into English in the 17th century, both meanings of recoup coexist for a while. The more straightforward meaning etymologically comes through first, but the second one shows up within a few decades. They coexist for a few centuries.

So what we're seeing is not a shift from one meaning of recoup to another, at least in English. What we're seeing instead are two distinct French meanings translated into English (and then evolving from there) as the Anglo-Norman law code shifted into the English language.

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    Boy, those Normans sure couldn't spell French very well, could they? :) – tchrist Jul 3 at 2:16
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I shall focus on your question itself. The first thing to say is that there is nothing surprising about a shift of meaning like this. The information I can find is indeed limited. Even in French it is difficult: the more so for one unfamiliar with early French.

The Centre Nationale de Resources Textuales (CNRT) takes us back to the 12th century for the verb recouper or recoper. But none of the examples get us anywhere near the modern meaning of English recoup.

Étymol. et Hist. 1. a) Mil. xiies. « diminuer » (Charroi de Nîmes, éd. D. Mac Millan, 536: Bien li a ore son vivre recopé); b) 1174-76 « couper (d'un vêtement) » (Guernes de Pont Ste-Maxence, St Thomas, éd. E. Walberg, 2009) − 1605, v. Gdf.; 2. 1549 « couper à nouveau » (Est.); 3. 1832 recouper des vins (Raymond); 4. 1832 jeux de cartes « couper à nouveau » (ibid.); 5. 1908 « apporter une vérification à des faits » (Barrès, loc. cit.). Dér. de couper*; préf. re-*

Littré gives a little more information in early French which is beyond me, except to say that as far as I can see, the sense of does emerge around the 15th/16th century. So in a quotation of a poem about the duties of a king, we find (roughly) that every valiant king must recoup the gifts and gages .

Les dons et gaiges recoupper Excessis et les moderer, Ainsi doit tout vaillant roy faire, Deschamps, Poésies mss. f° 314.

so the idea of recovery is there. Once the word gets into law in a system which was in the middle ages essentially retributive, it is not difficult to see how you get to wanting to recoup a loss for oneself or for another. And from there it is not difficult to get to 'recouping someone their loss. After all, we do find anything strange about saying

Give me back my money.

instead of "give my money back to me." so, instead of saying to the attorney "Get my money back for me.", it is no stretch to say

Get me back my money. Or

Recoup me my money.

This is imperfect and more speculative than I should like. But I cannot see a better way of understanding it.

As the the current English word and its usage, I find the Cambridge English Dictionary the most helpful, both for its definitions and for the range of examples it gives.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/recoup

  • "Recoup me my money" when talking to the person from whom you wish to get the money does not match the meaning of 'recoup' in the dictionary entry you have linked to (or the meaning I recognise). The only time it makes sense is when talking to your own agent (say a debt recovery firm) who would recoup the money from the debtor on your behalf. Only the person receiving the money or their agent can recoup it, the debtor must recompense them. It's like revenge, the person who has done the wrong can't offer revenge to the wronged, it has to be taken on them by the wronged person. – BoldBen Jul 8 at 3:01
  • @BoldBen Yes, that is right. I was not clear enough. Or rather my choice of ‘give’ as an example was misleading. It does have the property of taking an indirect object. The verb ‘get’ (or the verb phrase ‘get back’ is the parallel I intended. I can say to the agent ‘please get me back my money.’. Actually, I find ‘recoup me my loss’ rings false. I prefer ‘recoup my money for me’. For one thing, I don’t see any examples of ‘recoup’ in the passive with the ‘recoupee’ as subject. – Tuffy Jul 8 at 7:52

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