An aromatic journey into the language of coffee
The coffee plant itself might well have been discovered in Ethiopia (as far back as the 11th century, no less) but chugging back the drink – or marching purposefully towards the office, one of those ‘almost-a-bit-pretentious-really’ cardboard containers in hand – has long been regarded as an ‘American thing’.
And while, only a few short years ago, we once no-nonsense Brits wouldn’t entertain the idea of anything other than a simple mug of tea with our Weetabix, it’s true that coffee – or the need for it to get us through the day – is fast taking over all we do.
Everything starts with coffee – and stops for it, too!
Think about it for a second…
You wake up, put the kettle on – or if you’re really lucky, one of those fancy machines – and down your first coffee before you’ve even showered. Once at work, Linda from accounts offers to make the first ‘round’, and before you know it, you look up from your desk (a little less bleary-eyed than before, admittedly) to discover that it’s 3pm and you’re already five coffees down.
But just when did this fascination with the hot, steamy caffeine-filled stuff begin – and do you know your espresso from your skinny latte? Today on the OxfordWords blog, we’re focusing on the drink that has quite literally grabbed the attention of a nation, putting life back into our days by means of a few, long, hard glugs.
It’s not known precisely where the words coffee, café, or caffé ultimately got their meaning, though coffee entered English from the Turkish kahveh, from the Arabic qahwa, probably via the Dutch koffie. And the drink itself? An Arab shepherd in Ethiopia – seen tending to his goats – was one of the first to discover the drink. How? The goats were found to be acting strangely during the night, jumping around. They had, of course, been eating the berries from the coffee shrub – which has us wondering: is this where the expression ‘acting the goat’ derives? (Probably not… but you will find that phrase as far back as the 1870s.)
While I’ve always enjoyed the odd instant coffee, my love affair with the drink really began in the last four or five years or so. As a freelancer, client meetings make up a lot of my week – and there’s only so many times you can gloss over a coffee shop menu and do the very British thing of: ‘Tea, please’.
So one day, I surprised myself: I ordered a cappuccino. Dear reader, I married it. Or I could have done. Such was the buzz it gave me for the rest of the afternoon, I almost considered buying shares in Costa. Before long, I was ‘branching out’, ordering a latte here, and sometimes – if I was in need of a sugar hit – a mocha (named, incidentally, after Mocha, a port in Yemen on the Red Sea, from where the coffee was first shipped).
That said, as a Lancashire girl living in Yorkshire, one can feel a little bit of a wally asking for a ‘skinny-frappo-whatsit-espresso’ or a ‘latte-mocha-doppa-do-da’. Such is the seemingly ever-changing – and a bit on the ‘la-de-dah’ side – coffee shop parlance that a good old northern gal like me wonders if she’d feel a little better for whispering her order.
Coffee shop patter: a couple of basics
So, while we’re all well aware that, after Italians, Americans probably drink more coffee than we do, we do have to credit our European friends for being responsible for the language associated with the drink. Yes, there’s a reason you struggle to pronounce your favourite morning drink – this isn’t coffee shops having a laugh at the expense of the English; it’s because the words originate from Italy. When you think about it, the Italians pretty much invented the way the world drinks – and talks about – coffee. Not the word coffee itself –as discussed above – but almost every other coffee-specific word you’ll use over the counter will owe something to our Latin cousins.
A coffee shop ‘phrase book’
Ready? Here’s a few choice coffee shop expressions you might find useful (find out more in a fuller list on OxfordWords):
Caffè Americano – a weaker, American-style coffee served in a large cup
Caffè Doppio – a double espresso (from doppio, ‘double’) – not for the faint-hearted
Caffè Freddo – an iced coffee, often found in the fridge (pre-prepared) of the larger chains; freddo is Italian for ‘cold’ or ‘cool’
Caffè Latte – hot milk blended with coffee
Caffè Macchiato – espresso, plus a little steamed milk; macchiato literally means ‘stained’ or ‘marked’. Don’t think about that too much
Caffè Ristretto – an espresso with less water; ristretto means ‘narrow’
Cappuccino – an espresso infused with steamed milk
Keeping our phrase book in mind, it’s worth knowing that you won’t often find that the word Caffè (at least not here in Blighty) precedes any of the coffee names above. Such is coffee shop owners’ desire to ‘make things easier’ for us British customers that there are some elements of old-school coffee language which have waned a tad.
Psst: Did you know, in Italy the word caffé refers to both coffee and the place you drink it? Some food (or drink?) for thought if you’re planning a trip to the country.
It’s true that entering a coffee shop – here in the UK, in the US, or in Italy – is like stepping into the unknown. All cafes and coffee shops do things slightly differently: a range of measures and a subtle change to the menu here and there.
On top of that, it’s a world where the English language you learned at school might as well be redundant. In the Arabica-bean-soaked land of the coffee shop, only fancy coffee shop parlance will do. Do you want a small, medium, or large? Well, you might have to disentangle which one of these the coffee shop considers tall. And that’s before you get onto grande, venti, and trenta – which translate as ‘large’, ‘twenty’, and ‘thirty’ respectively. Even more confusingly, a venti can have 20 or 24 fluid ounces depending on variety of drink, while a trenta has 31 fl oz.
There’s even an ‘Italian’ way to drink your coffee too – we’ve become so accustomed to the ‘American way’ that few of us really know how to order a coffee, not least how to drink it. It’s worth knowing, then, that the differentiation in coffee measures just doesn’t exist when it comes to takeaway coffees in Italy. And you won’t find cold, milkshake-esque coffee drinks here either. Learn the parlance and you’ll be able to order your favourite drink minus the blushes.
I’ll be honest, all this talk of espressos, lattes, and cappuccinos has got me itching for a mug of the brown stuff. Right; that’s done it – I’m off-ski, for a coffee! *wondering if I’ll get a free miniature shortbread with that*