Is there any evidence that the origin of "pièce de résistance" lay in artillery? A native French speaker once told me he believed the term for the crowning culinary creation of a meal had its origin in the most impressive defensive cannon a fort boasted.

I managed to find recent usage in an English work along those lines here:

Though the scope for modern earthworks at Skipton was limited, considerable pains were taken to remount the artillery. Guns were hoisted up to the top of a number of towers, but the pièce de résistance was at the south east corner of the fortress. Here a 'great mount' was erected and the biggest gun, the two ton demi cannon, was hauled up onto the platform. This mount alone cost £8 to build, but it was money well spent for, when the Parliamentarians first approached in 1643, they were kept so far back from the walls by the thunder of cannon that they were unable to inflict any damage.

(Bull, Stephen, The Furie of the Ordnance: Artillery in the English Civil Wars. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2008)

However, I cannot prove that this hearkens back to some original usage; it may just be the author's own play on words, since a "piece" can refer to a cannon in English even now. (And apparently it may be used thus in French as well.)

English etymology sources I consulted are vague on the origin, beyond the obvious French attribution:


Etymology: < French pièce de résistance main dish of a meal (1732 or earlier), prize item (1791–8, referring to a woman) < pièce ᴘɪᴇᴄᴇ n. + de ᴅᴇ prep. + résistance ʀᴇsɪsᴛᴀɴᴄᴇ n.


1831, from French pièce de résistance, originally "the most substantial dish in a meal." Lit. "piece of resistance;" there seems to be disagreement as to the exact signification.


Some believe that the translation of the phrase is “the piece with staying power”, though there is some discussion about that interpretation.

At the moment, I'm inclined to suspect that the term did indeed emerge similarly to the English phrase "bringing out the big guns". (For one thing, "the piece with staying power" seems rather less than convincing -- why would describing a consumable as having "staying power" catch on? Is "résistance" even idiomatically used that way in French?)

However, I'm not fluent in modern French, much less French of 18th C. or earlier, and it'd be nice to have something more substantial to back this up and take it out of folk etymology. Is there any firmer evidence to support the argument in favor of an origin in cannonry? (Or, conversely, good reason to doubt it?)

  • 1
    Hi! There is also the origine ou raison and even the militaire tag it seems. Amazing 1st Q. btw. Cheers!
    – user19187
    Dec 12, 2019 at 3:01
  • 1
    Pièce has been used in the military since at least the 15th c. There's a quotation from a 15th century author using Pièce d'artillerie in the Middle French dictionary. Une pièce de 75 is still understood by people my generation. The pièce de 75, a light gun still used in WW1, was obviously not a pièce de résistance.
    – None
    Dec 12, 2019 at 17:46
  • @un3hiv3r Thank you; tags added.
    – Jacob C.
    Dec 13, 2019 at 21:26
  • To continue my unfinished comment above, in the military the pièce de résistance would be the biggest gun at disposal in the artillery. In French the equivalent of "to bring out the big guns" does not mention the word gun as such but the artillery at large. French says sortir l'artillerie lourde ("bring out the heavy artillery"). And the phrase can, as in English, be used literally and figuratively.
    – None
    Dec 14, 2019 at 19:49
  • @LaureSO-Écoute-nous "pièce de résistance" is used in a military context? Can you give a citation, if possible?
    – Jacob C.
    Dec 17, 2019 at 20:20

2 Answers 2


La locution « pièce de résistance » ne semble pas être apparue par rapport à un contexte militaire, en considérant l'étymologie du mot « résistance » et en tenant compte du sens de « pièce ».

Ac.: Dans un repas, Pièce de résistance, Pièce considérable, où il y a beaucoup à manger.

En regardant l'étymologie du mot « résistance » on peut trouver que le sens est générique, qu'il n'est pas défini à partir d'un affrontement entre combattants (champ lexical de la guerre). Cette définition a divers sens (courant électrique, digestion d'un repas, sentiment amoureux...).

Fin XIIIe. resistence « qualité par laquelle un corps résiste à l'action d'un autre corps »

En outre, la ponctuation dans la définition de « pièce de résistance » ainsi que le sens du mot « pièce » accentuent cette impression.

Pièce + inanimé. Morceau, partie généralement importante (en volume, en poids ou en longueur) d'une substance ou d'une matière. Pièce d'étoffe, de viande.

Enfin, il semblerait que la locution nominale soit qualifiée par le terme « résistance ».

I. − Partie d'un ensemble considérée comme un tout autonome.
A. − [Gén. dans le tour une pièce de + subst.]

D'ailleurs, on emploie plus couramment le terme de « plat de résistance » ce qui fournit d'autres indications (périphrases).

− Pièce de résistance. Plat principal d'un repas (généralement de la viande) proposé de manière copieuse. Un beau dîner contient des pièces de résistance et les hors-d'oeuvre (Baudel., Salon, 1846, p.145).

  • Can you expand on this? How does the etymology of the word "résistance" or the meaning of "pièce" rule it out?
    – Jacob C.
    Dec 17, 2019 at 20:23

Pièce de résistance has in my opinion zero chance to be or have been used in a military context.

Pièce has a lot of meanings, "artillery device" being a rare one, and pièce de résistance is a strongly established idiom in the culinary domain (along with plat de résistance).

Even a pun tentative when referring to a gun would have been difficult to catch.

The pièces d'artillerie are commonly named after their caliber, like pièce de 75 as already commented Laure, not after their usage.

Even if someone would have wanted to qualify a weapon according its usage, pièce d'attaque and pièce de défense would have been acceptable but pièce de résistance just doesn't work.

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