Il m’a fait un coup de Trafalgar.

Il m’a fait un coup de Trafalgar.

eel mah fay uh koo duh traa-fahl-GAAR. Click below to hear this.*

He pulled an underhanded trick on me.

If you’ve ever been to London, you’ve probably seen Lord Nelson on top of his pedestal in the middle of Trafalgar Square. But what does a famous Vice-Admiral of the British Royal Navy have to do with fun French expressions–especially this one?

Glad you asked!

Lord Nelson was responsible for upsetting the Spanish-French apple cart in 1805. A battle was in the offing. According to orthodox naval strategy, you lined up your ships, flank to flank, and traded broadsides. Lord Nelson, on the other hand, broke protocol and lined up his ships perpendicularly to the enemy, so they could crash through the Spanish-French lines, divide their fleet into three isolated groups, and conquer them decisively.

(The image is from the Wikipedia article on the battle of Trafalgar.) He got himself killed in the process, but the Brits honor his memory for the victory he strategized.

From the British point of view, it was brilliant. To the Spanish and French, it was practically heresy. No wonder the French call an underhanded trick a coup de Trafalgar.

If everyone knows the rules and someone fails to follow them, by definition, that is not fair play. Never mind that the French Rear Admiral Villeneuve had predicted Nelson’s strategy to the letter. He failed to act on his intelligence and his intuition, making the British moves appear sneaky and underhanded.

And that’s un coup de Trafalgar. The fellow you’re complaining about, up there in line one, didn’t react by the book. You felt cheated and burned, and now you are badmouthing him for his behavior. Just don’t play him back the same way, or you’ll be right up there in line one.

*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: coup_de_trafalgar.mp3

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