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Several times now, I have seen French people greet each other (via text chat) by saying "coucou". This appears to simply be derived from the word of the same spelling "coucou", describing the noise a cuckoo makes. I'm curious as to how this became a form of greeting. Does anybody know? Also, do French people actually say "coucou" to each other in real life or is it just in text chats that this phenomenon has taken hold?

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Le Littré dit “Coucou ! cri que fait en jouant l'enfant qui croit être bien caché.” –  F'x Aug 25 '11 at 13:54
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I think the first usage would indeed have been to go out from hiding to amuse children, mimicking the way a cuckoo works(including hiding one's eyes with your hands as the cuckoo doors). This is same as "Peekaboo!" in English or "Kiekeboe!" in Dutch. No idea how it then became a greeting. I know quite a lot of people who use it orally too, myself included. –  Joubarc Aug 25 '11 at 14:01
    
The same sound (or its monosyllabic version) is also used as an informal greeting in Russian, typically in writing. –  Artyom Jun 16 '13 at 14:30
    
coucou is an impromptu greeting. –  Knu Sep 30 '13 at 21:57

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I will try a unsourced explanation, but it seems to me that the term "Coucou" comes from the Cuckoo clocks where the Cuckoo pops out the clock and greets you with a "Coucou" before going away.

Plus this is an onomatopoeic derivation that is easily memorised by children, thus explaining why it is so common.

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"Coucou" according to "Le Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française" is: "Oiseau du genre des pies, qui a tiré son nom de son chant." So, it doesn't come from the clocks, but from the bird, which takes its same name from its own verse. –  Alenanno Aug 25 '11 at 14:05
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@Alenanno Yes it's a bird. But you don't see cuckoo coming to your windows to say hello to you very frequently. On the contrary, the clocks are more popular and that is something you hear and see on a hourly basis. –  M'vy Aug 25 '11 at 14:09
    
That might explain what @Joubarc said in his comment above. Are you saying what he wrote? –  Alenanno Aug 25 '11 at 14:12
    
@Alenanno Hm, did not saw this comment before answering. But yes I think this is linked. –  M'vy Aug 25 '11 at 14:16
    
It is hard to know if this is the correct answer. I'm not sure it is wise to accept it without proofs. –  Nikko Aug 31 '11 at 13:43

Le mot provient de l'horloge avec un coucou qui contient un oiseau dont le bruit fait «coucou».

Au sens strict lorsque c'est utilisé comme salutation c'est surtout quand la salutation doit être une surprise ou doit créer une surprise. Un peu comme la sortie du coucou de l'horloge surprend. C'est aussi pour ça que «coucou» est prononcé avec intonation. Si l'expression est restée, c'est selon moi très dû au fait que l'expression est simple à se rappeler et que c'est couramment utilisé dans un jeu pour bébé qui consiste à imiter le mouvement et le bruit du coucou.

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D'après le Dictionnaire historique de la langue française :

Par analogie avec le cri de l'oiseau, « coucou » est employé comme onomatopée (1660) pour le cri des enfants jouant à cache-cache et, de là, pour le cri manifestant une présence inattendue (1887).

Coucou pour désigner une horloge dont la sonnerie est remplacé par un oiseau imitant le cri du coucou est apparu en 1832, c'est donc postérieur à l'emploi du mot dans les jeux d'enfants.

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Coucou you do?

Oui, comme c'est dit dans le dictionnaire plus haut Cela sonne bien en Français. Quand on joue dans les bois, enfant, et qu'on entend l'oiseau crier "coucou" c'est surprenant(il y en a en France, ces oiseaux ont la réputation de voler les oeufs des autres), comme glouglou, cocorico, hihan, pffff,plouf, atchoum, beurk, ouf... On entend ces cris prononcés ainsi (onomatopées) Coucou = hello mais plus sympa et plus familier

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Ça n'explique pas vraiment comment c'est devenu une salutation. –  Evpok May 20 '13 at 21:41

The cuckoo is a bird doing much worse than stealing eggs : the female lays her own eggs in another nest when the legitimate parents are away, and gets rid of most of the right ones ; returning home, the owners don't notice a difference - although the eggs are bigger, and even could be more numerous - and feed them when they hatch ; if one true offspring then appears, it is killed by the new-born cuckoos, much stronger.

The cuckold is similarly (the etymological roots are the same) a husband believing wrongly that he fathered one of his child - or at risk.

"Coucou" is a very distinctive word, you can shout it from very far away, and uttered when, at the game of hide-and-seek, a child feels to have found a secure place.

It can be used, in colloquial language, by a friend turning up suddenly; it means "you were not expecting me, eh !"

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