The phrase coup d'état comes from French, literally meaning a "stroke of state" or "blow against the state". In French, the word État (French: [eta]), denoting a sovereign political entity, is capitalized.
Although the concept of a coup d'état has featured in politics since antiquity, the phrase is of relatively recent coinage; the Oxford English Dictionary identifies it as a French expression meaning a "stroke of state". The phrase did not appear within an English text before the 19th century except when used in translation of a French source, there being no simple phrase in English to convey the contextualized idea of a "knockout blow to the existing administration within a state".
One early use within text translated from French was in 1785 in a printed translation of a letter from a French merchant, commenting on an arbitrary decree or "arrêt" issued by the French king restricting the import of British wool. What may be its first published use within a text composed in English is an editor's note in the London Morning Chronicle, 7 January 1802, reporting the arrest by Napoleon in France, of Moreau, Berthier, Masséna, and Bernadotte:
There was a report in circulation yesterday of a sort of coup d'état having taken place in France, in consequence of some formidable conspiracy against the existing government.
In post-Revolutionary France, the phrase came to be used to describe the various murders by Napoleon's hated secret police, the Gens d'Armes d'Elite, who murdered the Duke of Enghien:
...the actors in torture, the distributors of the poisoning draughts, and the secret executioners of those unfortunate individuals or families, whom Bonaparte's measures of safety require to remove. In what revolutionary tyrants call grand[s] coups d'état, as butchering, or poisoning, or drowning, en masse, they are exclusively employed.
Use of the phrase
Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell's dataset of coups defines attempted coups as "illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive." They arrive at this definition by combining common definitions in the existing literature, and removing specificities and ambiguities that exist in many definitions.
In looser usage, as in "intelligence coup" or "boardroom coup", the term simply refers to gaining a sudden advantage on a rival.
Since an unsuccessful coup d'état in 1920 (the Kapp Putsch), the Swiss-German word Putsch (pronounced [pʊtʃ], coined for the Züriputsch of 6 September 1839, in Zurich), also denotes the politico-military actions of an unsuccessful minority reactionary coup.
Other recent and notable unsuccessful minority reactionary coups that are often referred to as Putsches are the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch and Küstrin Putsch, the 1961 Algiers Putsch and the 1991 August Putsch. Putsch was used as disinformation by Hitler and other Nazi party members to falsely claim that he had to suppress a reactionary coup during the Night of the Long Knives. Germans still use the term Röhm-Putsch to describe the murders, the term given to it by the Nazi regime, despite its unproven implication that the murders were necessary to prevent a coup. Thus, German authors often use quotation marks or write about the sogenannter Röhm-Putsch ("so-called Röhm Putsch") for emphasis.
Pronunciamiento ("pronouncement") is a term of Spanish origin for a special type of coup d'état. The coup d'état (called golpe de estado in Spanish) was more common in Spain and South America, while the pronunciamiento was more common in Central America and Mexico. The pronunciamiento is the formal explanation for deposing the regnant government, justifying the installation of the new government that was effected with the golpe de estado. A "barracks revolt" or cuartelazo is also a term for military revolt, from the Spanish term cuartel ("quarter" or "barracks"). Specific military garrisons are the sparking factor for a larger military revolt against the government.
One author makes a distinction between a coup and a pronunciamiento. In a coup, it is the military, paramilitary, or opposing political faction that deposes the current government and assumes power; whereas, in the pronunciamiento, the military deposes the existing government and installs an (ostensibly) civilian government.