Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

September 2010

Thanks A Latte

Last month in New York City, English professor Lynne Rosenthal was forcibly ejected from a Starbucks after refusing to place her order using the established terminology. What makes this altercation surprising is that it did not involve coffee. I suspect most of us quietly avoid ordering a 'venti latte', but Professor Rosenthal's 'faux pas' was to refuse to specify that she didn't want butter or cheese on her multi-grain bagel.

One thing this admittedly fatuous story brings to light is the notable absence of more linguistic disputes in coffee bars, not only because of the silly terminology the chain stores have adopted, but because the history of coffee is replete with misnomers and misconceptions.

In the first place, most coffee drinkers in the West think of coffee as a drink brewed from ground beans, but coffee beans are in fact the seeds of a cherry-like fruit indigenous to Ethiopia. Both the drink and the word were introduced to Europe via the Middle East. The word coffee ultimately derives from Arabic qahwah, though most European languages borrowed it from its Turkish cognate kahveh, which became caffè (Italian), café (French, Spanish, and Portuguese), Kaffee (German), koffie (Dutch), and coffee (English).

Citations of the word coffee in English technically go back to 1598, in descriptions of Turkish and, later, Italian culture. These early citations, however, usually spell the word chaoua (presumably pronounced 'cowva') or cahve. The earliest citation of the spelling coffee comes from 1636. Spellings such as kauhi, cahu, and kauhi persist until the end of the 17th Century.

In the English-speaking world, coffee came into its own during the 18th Century, when Britain expanded its sea power and, through trade, laid down the foundations of what would eventually become the British Empire. It was at this point that things like coffee, tea, and sugar became available in the British Isles – if you had the money. Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock depicts wealthy Brits drinking both tea and coffee, implying the drinks had relatively equal status, though as we all know, tea eventually replaced coffee as the drink of choice in the UK among all social classes.

In North America, however, coffee was king. In the United States especially, this may have resulted from a desire to distance itself culturally from Britain, but may also have been influenced by the number of immigrants from Continental Europe, who would have drunk coffee instead of tea.

The first European coffee houses appeared in the 17th Century, naturally in places where there was contact, through trade, with the Middle East: Hungary, Austria, and Italy. The last of these is still renowned for its coffee, and continues to influence our relationship with the beverage.

In English, coffee used to mean a bitter, black liquid produced in a percolator or a drip-machine. Nowadays it means a shot or two of espresso, some frothy steamed milk, possibly chocolate or a flavoured syrup, perhaps topped with chocolate power or cinnamon, or whipped cream.

Modern coffee tends to fall into one of three variations: the Cappuccino, the Latte, and the Mocha. All three of these drinks start with espresso coffee, which is 'strong coffee made by forcing steam or boiling water through ground coffee beans'. Both the word and the coffee are Italian; espresso means 'pressed', because the boiling water is 'pressed' through the coffee grounds. The Italians developed this technique of making coffee in the early 20th Century, though the earliest citation of espresso in English dates from 1945. Citations of espresso in the Bank of English, our database of over 4 billion words of actual written and spoken English, begin in the 1980s. Many of the earliest citations are from catalogues and refer to the machines that make espresso coffee, suggesting it was a newly popular gadget for the upwardly-mobile to purchase with their disposable income. Interestingly, the word ciao shows a similar date spread, indicating a mid-Eighties trend of affecting Continental manors. Espresso is also a word many English-speakers get completely wrong; Bank of English has 52 citations of 'expresso' (which would presumably mean a rapidly prepared cup of coffee).

A similar history and date spread is found with cappuccino, which is espresso coffee served with steamed milk (in the UK, it is often topped with whipped cream or chocolate powder, though this is rarely done in the US and never in Italy). The cappuccino was developed around the same time as the espresso, using much the same technology to force steam into milk, creating a velvety froth. The name cappuccino comes from the Italian for the capuchin monks, who wear a brown habit with a hood (Italian cappuccio literally means 'hood'). When the steamed milk combines with the espresso, a medium brown colour, similar to the capuchin habit, results; also the froth cap sits above the brown milky coffee like a hood.

Of the three main espresso coffee drinks popular in English-speaking countries the latte has been with us the longest. While citations of latte (as a coffee drink, rather than plain milk) on its own don't begin until 1989, citations of the full phrase caffè latte appear in English from the middle of the 19th Century. It is likely, however, that these early citation refer simply to coffee and with milk, rather than the espresso drink we know today, for espresso coffee would not be developed for another 50 years or so. Latte is Italian for milk, and as a former barista I can testify that a latte differs from a cappuccino in that it has more steamed milk and less froth (usually just a tiny cap of frothed milk on the top).

The interesting thing about latte, though, is that we often misspell the first part. Italian for 'coffee' is caffè. Our 2005 version of Bank of English has 46 citations of caffè latte. There are 55 citations, however, of café latte, incorrectly combining the French name for the coffee with the Italian name for the milk (in France, this drink would be a café au lait). The trend continues in our 2009 corpus, with 67 citations of caffè latte compared with 122 of café latte. The spread is even more telling if you break it down by time period. In the 1990s, there are 40 citations of caffè latte compared with 30 of café latte (i.e. the 'correct' version in the lead). In the first half of the Noughties, though, we get 15 citations of caffè latte versus 45 of café latte; the 'incorrect' version pulls far ahead. And it stays there: from 2005-2009 we have 14 citations of caffè latte compared with 44 of café latte. This indicates that when we first starting talking about caffè lattes, we got it right, but quickly slipped into the 'incorrect' mixed form (probably because café is much more common in English than caffè). In any case, the most frequent way to refer to this drink now is simply to drop the caffè part. In the period from 2005-2009, Bank of English has 59 citations of latte preceded by some form of caffè, as opposed to 757 citations of just latte on its own.

Another modern-day coffee misconception is the meaning of mocha. In most espresso bars, a mocha is basically a latte flavoured with chocolate, often topped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles instead of plain milk froth. But this is the second definition in Collins English Dictionary. The first is 'a strongly flavoured dark brown coffee originally imported from Arabia'.

Mocha was originally the name of a port in Yemen, famous for exporting Arabian coffee. The 'Mocha' variety of coffee tended to be rich and dark. Some people suggest its flavour is chocolatey, leading to the association with chocolate. Just as likely, however, is that the name Mocha, being associated with coffee, was used to indicate a coffee flavouring in chocolate dishes such as 'chocolate mocha walnut cake' (cited in the Bank of English), which is a chocolate cake flavoured with coffee. Whatever the explanation, a caf(f)è mocha is now so strongly perceived as a chocolate-flavoured coffee drink, that when the coffee house I used to work at tried serving the original mocha variety as a standard filter coffee, customers complained about the lack of chocolate.

Robert Groves - Editor


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