Why is “a Couple” More Than Two?

the kiss
Creative Commons License photo credit: bambibabe48

Me: Could I have a couple of those widgets, please?

Undefined Other: Sure! How many do you want?

Me (internally): A COUPLE.

Me: Two, please.

And why doesn’t “a pair” start to mean “a few”?


10 Responses to “Why is “a Couple” More Than Two?”

  1. BruceS
    March 25, 2009 at 9:10 am #

    In defense of the UO, “couple” is another word that has been so abused by so many for so long that it no longer has a clear meaning in practice. I’ve seen reviews of “sports cars” that had fixed hardtops and back seats (and even back doors in some cases); “bicycles” with three wheels; etc. The language came into being through Intelligent Design, but those Evolutionists keep sinning.

  2. admin - Rob
    March 25, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    Of course, you’re right, which is why my sighing and bitching is internal. If I had said I wanted three and the UO said, “how many,” I would have just repeated myself.

    Like most things, it depends on context. If I say “a happy couple,” (the title of the post), no one wonders how many are involved.

  3. BruceS
    March 27, 2009 at 9:16 am #

    I wonder if that’s true in communities that follow the teachings of Joe Smith and Co.* (the multiple-wife bit, not the statutory-rape bit). Do they even use the word “couple” for a man and his multiple wives? If polygamy were more common, I’d expect to hear people say “couple” for a threesome, maybe even a foursome.

    * not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has officially denounced the ways of its founders, but rather of those sects which think Smith was right, like the FLDS.

  4. admin - Rob
    March 27, 2009 at 1:38 pm #

    I’d GUESS that in those communities, a couple is two people.

  5. BruceS
    March 27, 2009 at 3:21 pm #

    So is the term “coupling” applicable to >2 carnality? Oops, heading for the gutter again…swerve! No! The other way!
    Of course, there are literally millions of other words people misuse *all the time*. I’m, like, a thousand percent sure of that, you know.
    In 4th grade, my teacher didn’t like that I used the term “most” in something I’d written. I had to replace it with “over 50%” to please her. She said “most” is just too imprecise.

  6. admin - Rob
    March 27, 2009 at 5:05 pm #

    “Over 50%” is less precise than “most,” in my opinion.

  7. Hugo
    June 1, 2011 at 9:09 am #

    This is interesting, because I often get caught misusing the word “couple” myself. The thing is in Quebec-French we say “une couple” to mean “a few” (and “un couple” means “two lovers” to us, without ambiguity). This usage is borrowed directly of English, even though most people don’t realize it. What’s strange is it has been borrowed with the “wrong” meaning…

    In everyday conversation if I need to speak English, I would often say “a couple” while in my head thinking “a few” (that’s how we use the phrase in my native language after all), but people understand it as literally meaning “two”!

    Anyways, your blog is now in my bookmarks, so keep up the good work. I especially love your hilarious examples!

  8. admin-Robert
    June 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    Thanks, Hugo!

    I do think that many (if not most) American English speakers now use “a couple” to mean “a few.”

    But my brain hasn’t changed yet.

  9. James
    July 20, 2011 at 12:09 am #

    Another theory.

    I grew up among people who used a kind of Hiberno-English dialect, where the Irish word cúpla (“a small number”) was commonly used in English discourse. People from Connacht pronounced it “cuppla” and others said “coopla”. So “I’ll have a cúpla those” meant “I’ll have a small number – a few – of those.” It _never_ meant “a couple”, in the sense of “exactly two”.

    The similar pronunciations are confusing.

  10. admin-Robert
    July 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    Ah, very interesting, James!

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