In honor of Quatorze Juillet--Bastille Day--here are a few thoughts about the French expression coup de grâce.
I had clicked over to Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks, one of the better food blogs out there, because Heidi's recipe for Salt-kissed Buttermilk Cake looked so tempting and her description, as always, was so persuasive. But I stopped short when I read this line in the recipe itself:
The coup de grace is a floppy dollop of sweet, freshly whipped cream on the side.
Now, I cooed over "floppy dollop," a charmingly evocative phrase. But "coup de grâce"? (Yes, it should have accent circonflexe.)
Here are several dictionary definitions of coup de grâce:
A death blow intended to end the suffering of a wounded creature
A French term used in English to mean a finishing sword cut.
The dagger stroke given to mercifully end the suffering of a wounded duelist (originally used to execute a defeated knight in heavy plate armor)
A finishing stroke
(By the way, the correct pronunication is coo duh grahss. Do not omit the s sound at the end of grâce.)
I left a comment noting that I felt coup de grâce was an odd choice in this context. One later commenter leapt to Heidi's defense, citing that "finishing stroke" definition.
I disagree, although I agree that my original on-the-fly suggestion for a substitution--pièce de résistance--is just as inapt.
The problem with coup de grâce is that grâce reminds us of the everyday meaning of English "grace": "elegance," "attractiveness," "charm." But "grace" and grâce also have theological meanings of "mercy" and "thanksgiving" (which English retains in expressions like "by the grace of God" and "the grace before meals"). A coup de grâce relies on the latter meaning: it's a merciful end to suffering.
I think "grace note"--a small, decorative, unessential part of a larger piece--is closer to what Heidi may have intended; what it lacks in Frenchy finery it makes up for in accuracy, and the link with musical terminology creates a pleasing cross-sensory association.
Now, English speakers have been ringing all sorts of changes on French since the Norman invasion, and I'm sure there are those will take the descriptivist position: "If Heidi wants coup de grâce to mean delicious adornment, then I'll defend to the death her right to do so!"
But I think we need to be careful with our borrowings and redefinings. As I heard someone say on NPR the other day, "We're living in a global world"--or at least an increasingly connected one. Supoose you had a native French speaker at your table and proudly announced that whipped cream was your cake's coup de grâce. Your guest would have reason to push his dessert plate away with a murmured "Non, merci."
Finding le mot juste--like finding the perfect fleur de sel--can take a little additional time, but it's definitely worth the trouble.
P.S. I made Salt-kissed Buttermilk Cake over the weekend with fresh raspberries. Four stars. And one caveat: if you use kosher salt for the topping, halve the amount in the recipe. For the sodium-sensitive, a whole teaspoonful of kosher salt could indeed be a finishing stroke--and not a merciful one.
P.P.S. Speaking of faux pas, right after I finished writing this post I came across this sentence in a fashion blog: "And viola!" Mais non, not unless you're introducing a member of a string quartet. The word is voilà--French for "hey, presto!", more or less. It's pronounced vwah-LAH.