counting coups

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counting coups

Post by pokoma » Tue Jul 01, 2008 11:44 pm

After a recent state primary election, one radio host appropriately commented that some candidates had focused on the negatives of opponents' records. He used the term "counting coups." I couldn't find it in Webster's 11th Collegiate, and I haven't heard it in a long time.

It should have been with "coup" (F. blow, strike), "coup de grace" (deathblow, decisive finishing blow), and "coup d'etat" (violent overthrow of a government). I've heard "counting coups" in historical contexts about Native Americans as a way of flaunting individual triumphs such as slaying enemies and taking spoils.

Anyone have further light on the subject?
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Re: counting coups

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Jul 02, 2008 12:27 am

From the speaker's intonation, was 'counting' being used as a verb or as an adjective?
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Re: counting coups

Post by pokoma » Wed Jul 02, 2008 2:46 am

"Counting" could be either the main verb (present participle) with the direct object "coups": They were counting coups after the raid; or a gerund (present participle used as a noun): The nominee celebrated his win in the primary by counting coups from distorting his opponents' records. ("Coups" is the object of the noun phrase because the gerund is really a verb functioning as a noun.)

Is that enough grammar for ya?
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Re: counting coups

Post by pokoma » Wed Jul 02, 2008 2:51 am

P.S. Intonation doesn't matter.
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Re: counting coups

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Jul 02, 2008 3:55 am

When I googled the phrase I found quite a few explanations, but the following one by Dennis Gaffney (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/bi ... 04A35.html) seemed more trustworthy than most (click on the link above to see the illustrations of the activity):

At the 2005 ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event in Bismarck, North Dakota, a man arrived with a handful of pictographs that had been drawn with colored pencils on ledger paper in the late 19th century. The drawings had been made by Plains Indians at Standing Rock, a Sioux reservation south of Bismarck, for the man's great aunt, a missionary there. He had inherited the pictographs, and showed two depicting Plains Indian warriors in battle to appraiser Douglas Deihl, who is director of American Indian & Ethnographic Art at Skinner Inc. in Boston. On-air, Deihl referred to the stick that one Indian on horseback is shown carrying as a "coup stick." Describing a second pictograph, Deihl says a warrior "counted coups with his quirt."

But what is a "coup stick," and what does it mean to "count coups"?

"In Plains warrior societies," Deihl explains, "Sioux warriors gained their status by being brave in battle, and one way this was done was known as 'counting coups.' What these warriors tried to do was to get close enough to the enemy to touch them without getting injured or killed. To do so was considered the highest honor for the warriors, an act considered more honorable than going in and killing and scalping them. To touch the enemy and survive was considered the greatest honor in battle." This was true because to count coups put a warrior in close proximity to the enemy, which was riskier and took more courage than shooting the enemy from afar.

Webster's dictionary defines the word coup (from the French, pronounced "coo") as "a highly successful, unexpected strike, act, or move; a clever action or accomplishment" — precisely how the word is used in this phrase.

Deihl notes that these High Plains Indians, including the Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, and Blackfoot, counted coups by touching their enemy — whether the U.S. cavalry or other Indian foes — with a coup stick. A coup stick was typically a willow rod with a feather on the end, but they also counted coups with wooden or elk-horn riding quirts, which are essentially horsewhips, or with weapons such as bows or spears. There were also different grades of counting coups, Deihl says. Touching an enemy who was alive, for example, earned a warrior higher honors than touching a wounded or dead enemy. To count coups also means to tell others the story of your coups — something these American Indian artists were undoubtedly doing in their drawings.
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Re: counting coups

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Jul 02, 2008 8:59 am

Thomas Berger's Little Big Man contains a reference to the practise of the Sioux Indians as described by Erik. I don't have a copy of the book to hand so I can't tell you if he used the term 'counting coup' or not in the novel. If anyone has a copy they could have a quick look.

A quick look on books.google comes up with this line from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: A History of the American Indians http://books.google.com/books?id=gfcIGe ... mIjT9gpqww

Better still: I found a novel called Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn by Larry Colton
The synopsis has this to offer.
There was a time when "counting coup" meant literally touching one's enemy in battle and living to talk about it. Still part of the Native American tradition, today the phrase means playing winning hoops and dominating one's opponents.
A reference to this can be found in another book on native American traditions and basketball:
http://books.google.com/books?id=kC4qYe ... iP2nJOqLiA

Perhaps the commentator in pokoma's post wanted in to make a reference to this term as used in basketball.
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Re: counting coups

Post by zmjezhd » Wed Jul 02, 2008 3:23 pm

Another description of counting coup (link).
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Re: counting coups

Post by pokoma » Wed Jul 02, 2008 5:03 pm

Most interesting! I'll send a link to the radio host to see if he knew the background of the term. How often do we use an expression without fully understanding its meaning? And that's not counting spoonerisms, malapropisms, mixed metaphors, plain old usage errors, etc. that a person of adequate education avoids.

I can appreciate the image of just touching the enemy/opponent in politics, where counting coups would involve picking and choosing data that hurt the one party to help the other. The tangible/truthful aspects are immaterial.

Thanx.
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Re: counting coups

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Jul 02, 2008 10:52 pm

The interesting links and comments provided above inspired me to do some further snooping around – and to provide some further detail (including some repetition). From what I have been able to gather Douglas Deihl’s above Antique Roadshow account and the excerpts from the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, . . . discuss some aspects of the meanings of COUNT COUPS or COUNTING COUPS. As far as I can make out, the expression has quite a few meanings, both literal and figurative, which I expand on and summarize below.

From various dictionaries and journal articles and the above references, I have come up with the following meanings and origins of COUNTING COUPS:

First I’ll discuss the historical literal meanings, and later the modern figurative ones:

COUP(S) noun: For Native Americans they were personal victories: acts of daring, valor, and bravery, successful strikes/blows/killings performed during hunting or warfare, and they came in several varieties:

a) There was the ceremonial type (often intentionally benign) as described by Douglas Deihl (above) and in Jim’s (a.k.a. zmjezhd) excellent link (the extremely honorable touch and withdraw) without actually wounding. This also was often the ‘first strike’ of a battle or hunting foray. Or it was sometimes the final ritualistic touch (or not so ritualistic) bop on the head or body of a fallen enemy.

b) There was the deadly type aimed at killing

c) There was the type that included other acts of daring, valor, and bravery such as attempting to rescue a comrade, spying on an enemy camp, or other such dangerous feats of heroism.
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COUNTING COUPS verb:

a) Performing the actual feat as described above

b) Recounting one’s exploits or COUPS – retelling the stories of the feat in a formal ceremony that was called counting coups. The meaning of narration of tales seems to be a fairly common historical use, at least from what I could ascertain from my wanderings.
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COUPS STICK has been described above and it is also described below under that heading (see 1876 quote). It seems that this long pole was used in both ceremony and in battle (as a lance) and on it appear various pictures, carvings, feathers which relate to past COUPS (a feather, drawing, etc. was often added for each COUP).
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Having COUPS and thus COUPS to COUNT were critical for a brave to gain the respect of his comrades and advance in his society (or even to have the right to get married).

Note: I don’t take everything that follows (definitions and quotes give varying meanings) as the gospel truth because in many of these earlier records folks were struggling to get a handle on the meanings of the various words. And I would give greater weight to some of the newer material – Oxford English Dictionary, journal quotes, etc. – when more research had been done, discoveries had been made, and when vastly greater search resources had become available.
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Here is what I found in the monumental work (1946 pages in small print) titled A DICTIONARY OF AMERICANISMS (1951) by Mitford M. Mathews. All quotes found here and elsewhere will be grouped together further below:

COUP noun West: [French, in American sense shown here.] Among plains Indians, a personal deed of daring and victory, especially the first blow or wound given an enemy. Now historical.

COUP STICK (see quotation 1876) [[the early days of the field of ACOUSTICS (>;)]]

TO COUNT COUP, to be the first to strike an enemy with an object in the hand; to recount one’s exploits. Now historical

COUP verb intransitive [from the noun] West: Rare
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OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

COUP noun: Among North American Indians: A successful stroke; especially one that captures the weapon or horse of an enemy. Also attributive, as COUP-STICK [[see 1876 quote above]].
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COUP(S) quotes:
<1742 “Ces Sauvages n’avoient mis que deux nuits à se rendre de l’endroit où ils avoient fait COUP.”—in Friederici (1947), page 216/I> [[Google translation: “The Indians put n'avoient two nights to visit the place where they made avoient coup,” Hmm! Any 18th-century French speakers around or good guessers?]]

<1841 “Each one . . . recited his exploits, and his ‘COUPS’ or deaths.”—North American Indians by G. Catlin, I. page 27>

<1876 Giving the COUP . . . the term indicates that it was . . . named by the old French trappers, predecessors of the Hudson Bay Company. When a foe has been struck down in a fight, the scalp belongs to him who shall first strike the body with knife or tomahawk. This is the COUP.”—Plains of the Great West by R. I. Dodge in Americanism by Farmer>

<1876 “We have our way of fighting. We will run in and count ‘COO’ (corruption of the French ‘COUP’ = blow or strike) ‘and the soldiers can do the fighting.”—Journal of Bourke, 10 May>

<1895 “Woe to the Sioux if the Northern Cheyenne get a chance to COUP!”—Pony Tracks by Remington, page 48> [[intransitive verb]]
COUNT COUP(S) quotes:
<1831 “The visiters were smoked as usual, feasted on fat dogs; and then they danced and COUNTED THEIR COUPS.”—Illinois Monthly, July, page 459>

<1911 “The killing of the bull is done by the man who holds the office; nobody else can do it. He must be a man of high standing, able to COUNT COUPS. . . They find a small herd of bulls and the buffalo killer starts after them.”—American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 13, No. 3, July. - September, page 358>

<1914 “. . . the dead were mostly interred. Ceremony at grave when warriors COUNT COUPS, that the spirit of the deceased may be properly attended on the journey to the hereafter.”—American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 2, April - June, page 316>

<1947 “War chief: any brave who had COUNTED enough COUPS to entitle him to lead a war party on his own.”—Across the Wide Missouri by DeVoto, page 81>

<1950 “Deeds of valor, as evidenced by the practice of ‘COUNTING COUPS,’ that is, narrating in council one’s heroic acts, was the surest means of social advancements. Among the Crow, only COUP-COUNTERS could marry.”—American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 1, January - March, page 75>

<1963 “Befeathered coup stick (to touch an enemy or COUNT COUP was a braver act than killing him).”—Beaver by Summer, page 33/2>

<1968 “A natural relish for story-telling led to the custom [[among white men of the West]] of COUNTING COUPS, and imitation of the Indian ceremony at which braves recounted past triumphs . . .”—American Speech Vol. 43, No. 3, October, page 217>

<1971 “The dance was resumed, and more members of the tribe began to participate, bringing offerings, asking cures, and rushing to the sacred tepee to touch it and COUNT COUPS.”—College English, Vol. 32, No. 5, February, page 523>

<1974 “‘Friends,’ he went on, ‘Laughter is going to COUNT HIS COUPS. He does not speak our language so I will be his interpreter. Now then listen.’ And raising his voice he shouted: ‘Laughter. That is me. That is my name. I went on a raid with Nitanian and Red Eagle. . . .”—Who Gone Those Times? Blackfoot Tales by James W. Schultz, page 192-193>

<1979 “The Dacotah traditionally were more interested in COUNTING COUPS—stealing horses or individual acts of bravery—than in total military victory, . . .”—Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 69, No. 3. September, page 387>

<1987 “. . . a Blackfeet veteran of intertribal wars reenacting COUNTING COUPS with the aid of a wooden horse effigy . . .”—‘Plains Indian Sculpture’ in African Arts, Vol. 21, No. 1, November, page 77 (Nov., 1987)

<2000 “Though related to individual achievement, these stories remained incomplete until tribal members ‘share[d] in the creation of a new self-image and a new personal narrative for the one COUNTING COUPS.”—College Literature, 22 September>
COUP STICKS quotes [[Thus marking the beginnings of the field of acoustics. (>;)]]
<1876 “Making ‘COUP’ STICKS, which are long willow branches, about 12 feet from end to end, stripped of leaves and bark and having each some distinctive mark in the way of feathers, bells , [etc.] . . . in dividing the spoil, each man claims the animals first struck by the ‘COUP’ STICK.”—Journal of Bourke, 15 June> [[here the ‘coup stick’ appears to be used in hunting – don’t think it is a weapon but a ceremonial stick, and animal (probably often buffalo) is subsequently killed with spears, arrows, or rifles]]

<circa 1918 “Some Indian had had scratched a crude picture of an Indian with a war bonnet on and a ‘COUP’ STICK in his hand seated on a horse.”—On Frontier by G. Stuart, II. page 122>

<1921 “Chief Plenty Coos laid his COUPSTICK (symbol of tribal authority) and his war bonnet on the tomb.”—Glasgow Herald (Scotland), 12 November, page 7>

<1963 “Befeathered COUP STICK (to touch an enemy or count coup was a braver act than killing him).”—Beaver by Summer, page 33/2>
But what of the modern figurative sense of COUNTING COUPS. What exactly is meant in this modern expression, often associated with business, politics, etc.? Based on the modern examples we have and the model of the older meanings, here are my best guesses:

COUNTING COUPS:

1) Counting or keeping tabs of one’s blows, strikes, victories, mostly with honor – similar to one of its historical literal meanings. (see 1993, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 below)

2a) Counting or keeping tabs on blows, strikes, victories. But here we have a twist of sarcasm where the counting of victories ‘alone’ is not considered to be of prime or fundamental importance. They are just victories and a ‘ victory count’ is being foisted on folks in place of more important considerations. b) And this includes the aspect that Pam (a.k.a. pokoma) brings up in her last posting of the kind or quality of the blows, strikes, and victories. Misleading counting-coups victories by “picking and choosing data that hurt the one party to help the other,” ‘negative-campaigning victories,’ victories based on nothing substantive, or worse on intentional untruths/fabrications (‘swift-boating’ victories). These may be blows, strikes, and victories of a kind, but they are not necessarily honorable ones. (see 1978, 2000, 2006, 2008 quotes below)
<1978 “I find that . . . of the most fundamental aspects of the process are exposed to serious question. This is more significant than COUNTING COUPS in the Letters section,”—Science, New Series, Vol. 202, No. 4372, 8 December, page 1041> [[this article discusses a theory which was being criticized and shot down by some scientists. The writer is saying that the serious scientifically-based criticism is more significant than just than counting the letters (knee-jerk blows/strikes or supposed victories) of people who objected without seriously justifying their objections>

<1993 “If Clinton could COUNT COUPS with these new programs, he also found out that ‘being there’ works both ways. Agriculture conferees thumbed their nose at the president by retaining the much maligned honey program, which last year granted $18 million in subsidies to 4,000 of the nation's 200,000 beekeepers. Clinton held up the subsidy as a quintessential government waste of money.”— Washington Post, 4 August>

<1997 “Coach Cal COUNTS HIS COUP: UMass fans have fond memories of John Calipari building a laughingstock college basketball program into a national power. Nine years later, at the next level, Calipari has set the stage to play out a similar script in New Jersey.”—Boston Herald, 24 February>

<2000 “The partisans who want to help write the first draft of the history of this election have more at stake than just pride and COUNTING COUPS . . .”—Texas Weekly (Austin, Texas) Volume 17, Issue 21, 20 November>

<2001 (book review) “COUNTING COUP: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn by Larry Colton: NPR aired a program last year about the tremendous success of Crow Indian high school basketball. Sports for the Crow represent a form of COUP COUNTING, a pre-reservation cultural practice that connotes bravery, honor, and pride. To COUNT COUP, one looks into the eyes of the enemy, touches him, and retreats. For the modern Crow, this takes place not on the battlefield, but on the basketball court.”—Antioch Review, 22 June>

<2003 “[[author]] Hillerman COUNTS COUP once more . . . Tony Hillerman all but owns the genre of decent, old-fashioned mysteries . . . --it could be rated somewhere in the middle of the pack--but even when coasting, he soars far above most anyone else in his particular subgenre of the mystery story.”— Chicago Sun-Times, 4 May>

<2005 “Bob Flaherty COUNTS COUP Over Secret Short Sellers: . . . Editor Bob Flaherty COUNTED COUP over those in the major media who sided with secret short sellers . . . “—Business Wire, 21 January>

<2006 “During the last thirty years or so, Southern Baptists began pulling back from costly institutional and hospitals. The primary focus shifted solely to evangelism. This shift has led to a ‘numbers' game; of counting new church starts and converts, and such a change at times is difficult to comprehend or endorse. The stated rationale was that Southern Baptists wanted to fulfill the Great Commission, but the emphasis seemed to be more on baptism numbers and ‘COUNTING COUPS.’”—Baptist History and Heritage, 22 March>

<2007 “Last week, [[Rep.]] Simpson announced the subcommittee approved $97 million in new funding . . . Simpson COUNTED COUPS . . . The story of Simpson's close call shows how curiosity, work ethic and affability make him one of its most effective junior members [[of Congress]].” Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 31 May>

<2008 “You need to follow the real grass roots -- people who are not reading here or playing 24-hr news channels. They find the Dem contest exciting, McCain boring and aren't interested in COUNTING COUPS against their ‘baby's’ opponents. HuffingtonPost.com, 24 March>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary, A Dictionary of Americanisms by Mathews, and archived sources)
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Ken G – July 2, 2008
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Re: counting coups

Post by pokoma » Thu Jul 03, 2008 6:51 pm

Ken,
Thanx for the extra insights, particularly:

1. "COUP STICKS quotes [[Thus marking the beginnings of the field of acoustics. (>;)]]"
It took me a while to figure out your emoticon (the double brackets got in the way). Must be my Brit ancestry -- the tendency to hear/read too literally while often being misunderstood in speaking too dryly. Homophonics -- what a concept!

2. "... the aspect that Pam (a.k.a. pokoma) brings up in her last posting of the kind or quality of the blows, strikes, and victories. Misleading counting-coups victories by “picking and choosing data that hurt the one party to help the other,” ‘negative-campaigning victories,’ victories based on nothing substantive, or worse on intentional untruths/fabrications (‘swift-boating’ victories). These may be blows, strikes, and victories of a kind, but they are not necessarily honorable ones (my italics)." An important distinction, yes, but we're talking politics here. That's why I originally posted; my guy got the short end of the (coup) stick. He is too honorable. As I concluded several elections ago, "If you can find a good, honest auto mechanic -- or politician -- hang on to him."
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