Words and Civilisation: Coffee

All I wanted, this morning, was coffee.

I sleepwalked towards the nearest authorised dealer and staggered into Starbucks.  “Flat latte”, I mumbled through my somnolent haze.

The trademark cheerful foreign language student in the green apron didn’t react.  I had entered the wrong combination.  It was the flat that was wrong.  That was Prêt-à-Manger terminology.  I stammered, my pre-coffee brain searching for the correct pin.  “I – I mean – A – a wet latte”.

There.  I had managed it.

“What size?” – the Korean student, not missing a beat.

I began pointing at a stack of paper cups, unable to emit a human sentence.  The student picked up the largest cup.  “No – small!”

“Tall”, the student corrected me, patiently.  He scribbled some obscure symbols with a black marker on the side of the cup, then passed it down the assembly line, shouting, “Tall wet latte!”

That was it.  Tall wet latte.  The access code for a small, milky coffee without the froth on top.  As opposed to a dry latte, which has a fluffy head of milk froth on top (when I first heard another customer order that, I expected him to walk away with a sachet of ready-to-make beverage in powder form.)

Then, there are the size names.  Tall.  Grande.  Venti.  Tall – why can’t they just call it short? Is it politically correct to spare the feelings of the midget coffee?  I am also puzzled by the reasoning behind mixing English and Italian.  Tall.  Grande.  Venti.  Translation – Tall, Large, Twenty.  Twenty?! Twenty what? Twenty centimetres of coffee? Twenty grams of paper to make the cup? Twenty gulps to drink the stuff? Twenty reasons for taking your custom elsewhere?

In a spirit of rebellion, you try Costa, Nero and Coffee Republic, only to be offered the same choices with a completely different set of vocabulary to memorise – none of which is actually recognizable anywhere along the Italian Peninsula.

For a start, if you ordered latte there, you’d be served a glass of milk.  That is what the word means.

Unless you meant a caffelatte.

Scribe Doll

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6 Responses to Words and Civilisation: Coffee

  1. Pingback: The End of a Blog – and the Beginning of a New One | Scribe Doll

  2. rafe says:

    It’s an American chain. Venti is a 20 oz serving


  3. Christine says:

    It’s even more complicated if you cross the Pond. Here in the States no one at Starbuck’s has ever heard of a “wet” or “dry” latte. Isn’t all coffee by definition wet, unless of course it has not been mixed with water? We do, however, also have the same ridiculous names for various sizes where a “tall” is really the smallest cup of coffee.

    I remember when I lived in England and learned to ask for “coffee white.” I thought I had conquered a cultural divide. I guess not!

    I do try to patronize the independent coffee shops, but there are times that I crave coffee and can’t find anything else but Starbuck’s. My youngest son (age 16) loves the chilled drinks at Starbuck’s. The chain knows what it’s doing–entice the youngsters with sweet drinks and they will be hooked for life.

    For a while I had a cartoon on my fridge that showed a Starbuck’s on the moon. They are ubiquitous.

    Your discussion of “venti” made me laugh. Do you remember the scene in A Fish Called Wanda where names of Italian pasta are supposed to be dreamily romantic? I suppose any foreign word sounds intriguing until you stop to analyze how silly the word is in the context! Using the names of pasta to seduce is as ridiculous as calling the largest coffee cup “twenty.”

    I loved your essay!

  4. Jan Hirst says:

    Now I understand why I never know what to ask for.

  5. Sean says:

    Trust me Katia – I’ve been refusing to engage in that silliness for years. If you ask for a medium filter coffee a sufficient number of times they soon give in 🙂

    • simon says:

      All Starbucks should be boycotted: their coffee is foul and their intention is to take over the world with their evil brews and over-sized muffins. Support independents like the Fleet River Bakery which does superlative coffee and cakes. Just round the corner from Holborn station at 71 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. And no, I’m not on a commission!

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