What is a Coup?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A coup, or coup d’etat, derives from the French verb couper, which means to strike. Etat means "the state." It can be translated to a strike to the state, or a blow to a government. The term may refer to a military victory or overthrow of a government. It is usually a total victory that renders the acting government’s military powerless and thus signifies takeover of the government.

A coup can be carried out with the advance knowledge and consent of members of a country's legislative branch.
A coup can be carried out with the advance knowledge and consent of members of a country's legislative branch.

When people refer to the coup d’etat, they often call it a military coup. There are four types, according to Samuel Phillips Huntington. Huntington is a political scientist who believes most takeovers in the 21st century will be those where the people rise up against the government. The four types are:

  • breakthrough,
  • veto,
  • guardian, and
  • bloodless coup.

Technically any coup can be bloodless. Takeover of a government is gained merely by threat and not by using violence. However, most examples involve the loss of many lives.

The breakthrough coup occurs when a revolutionary group overthrows the seated government and takes over as the new leaders. A guardian coup occurs when someone seizes top-level power from another, usually stating that doing so is necessary because of mass disorder in the state. A veto coup refers to the army having to put down rebellion and organization by the people of the state. This tends to be the worst kind because many civilians may be killed in the process.

Another type is the counting coup. In many Native American tribes, it was considered much greater honor to strike rather than kill an enemy. Some warriors had staffs, which were marked with the number of times they were able to perform a strike in battle, rather than in killing someone. Since "coup" to the Native American was still a French derived word, the idea of striking rather than killing may have been tied to the concept of “touché,” a touch of the opponent in dueling, rather than a kill.

Completely unrelated to battle is the use of the term to mean a victory or benefit in numerous different fields. A fundraising committee who gets a popular singer to sing at a charitable function would consider this a coup. Hosting the Olympics might be considered a coup to a country, just as getting to televise the Olympics is a coup to a television station.

The term can relate to politics in a non-violent way. For example, in 2006 the Democratic wins in the United States' House and Senate were considered a coup to the Democratic Party. Since this does confer some political power to the Democrats, this could be seen in loosest definition as a bloodless coup.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


The Cuban communist revolution was a revolution inherently; it is by no means a coup d'etat. The primary actors in coup d'etat are the military and the state and the insurrection and disposal of the government is done by its own military force.


For me, the scariest revolution or coup happened on the island of Cuba in the 1950's. The leader at the time was a military dictator. A Cuban communist rebel had been hiding up in the hills with his followers. He believed in the same brand of communism as the Russian leaders. This communist rebel, named Fidel Castro, finally took over the government.

In the beginning, many people liked communism - everyone got enough to eat, could go to school, and work at a job. As time went on, the economics didn't work so well, and people lost their jobs. People became unhappy when freedom of speech and other rights were restricted.

Some parents were so afraid of the government that they sent their children by plane over to Florida, where most of them were adopted. The parents just broke up, to see their kids going so far away. But, they thought they would have a better life in the U.S. Revolution can be so cruel to children and everyone.


A coup is also regarded as the national sport and popular summer pastime in the nation of Fiji.

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