The Grammarphobia Blog

Coupon clipping

Q: “John sat, clipping coupons, at his kitchen table. He did this one or two times in a typical month, and it was the central event in his financial life.” What is John’s financial condition? Is he rich or poor or somewhere in between?

A: You’re right. Without any context that would explain it, this passage is ambiguous.

Is John clipping coupons from the newspaper (“50% off when you buy two!”) because he’s pinching his pennies? Or is he clipping coupons from his bonds because he’s loaded?

The word “coupon” has an interesting history. It ultimately comes from the Latin colaphus (a blow with the fist).

The Latin word is also the source of the French coup (a blow) and our English word “coup,” which originally meant a blow but now means a successful move or a brilliant stroke.

“Coupon” was originally colpon or copon in Old French, where it meant a cutting or a piece cut off, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 14th century, that Old French word entered English as “culpon,” a now obsolete word that meant a slice or strip.

The original, meanwhile, evolved into the modern French coupon, which was then reintroduced into English in the 19th century with its new meaning. (By then, the old “culpon” had been forgotten.)

When it first appeared in English in 1822, the OED says, “coupon” meant, in part, “one of a set of certificates attached to a bond running for a term of years, to be detached and presented as successive payments of interest become due to the holder; a separable dividend-warrant.”

In 1864, the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook introduced a new meaning: prepaid tickets, issued by excursion agencies, that a tourist could use for travel and hotel expenses.

In 1906 a less prosperous meaning emerged, and a “coupon” could also mean the thing you clip from an ad to get a freebie or discount. Unfortunately, that’s the “coupon” we’re most familiar with!

As for the pronunciation of  “coupon,” don’t jump to conclusions. According to standard dictionaries, it can be properly pronounced as either KOO-pon or KYOO-pon.

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