Word in the news: could you cope with ‘cope’?
You may have seen in the news that French students sitting a baccalaureate exam about Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement were asked to discuss ‘How is Turner coping with the situation?’, Turner being the male protagonist. ‘Question M’ quickly became a hot topic on social media, with students complaining that the word coping was too difficult to understand, and over 12,000 people have since signed an online petition seeking the ‘annulation’ (abolition) of the question.
There is an irony in the fact that cope actually entered the English language from – you guessed it – French. More precisely, it derives from the Old French coper, colper, from cop, colp meaning ‘a blow’. In turn, this came via Latin from the Greek kolaphos, ‘blow with the fist’. The Old French coper survives in Modern French as couper (‘to cut’), with related words including coupon ‘piece cut off’.
From cut to cope
You can forgive French students for not immediately seeing the connection between cutting and coping. In its earliest recorded use in English, in the 15th century, cope meant ‘to strike; to come to blows; encounter, join battle’. A century or so later, this had taken on a positive light: ‘to contend with in a well-matched fight, to be or prove oneself a match for [someone/something]’, in either a literal or figurative battle.
Once cope was used in relation to figurative battles, it was only a matter of time before the field broadened still further, and the word took on its current meaning of ‘deal effectively with something difficult’.
So, how common is cope? A look at the Oxford English Corpus shows that it is found there 54,112 times. To give an indication of its popularity, other words which are found with approximately this frequency in the Corpus include cream, superior, weird, and alarm.
Incidentally, McEwan’s Atonement has also found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): it is quoted in supporting evidence for 18 entries, including carbolic, discernible, ice cube, and smart-aleckry.