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The Fascinating History behind These Coffees

Coffee, java, joe; the elixir of life has many names and even more variations. It is one of the most legally traded commodities in the world, with a fascinating history that includes several myths and misconceptions. I decided that it would be interesting to focus on the etymology and history of the four following words: coffee, cappuccino, macchiato and mocha. More specifically, I will focus on the misconception that despite popular belief regarding the origins of both coffee and their names, they don’t all come from Italy. 

Coffee, in the traditional, basic sense, is a hot drink made from a dark brown powder with a strong flavor and smell that is made by crushing coffee beans. The drink is made from coffee beans found inside a cherry-like fruit that originated in Africa, and more specifically in Ethiopia. There are two theories on where the name ‘coffee’ comes from. The first suggests that just like the drink itself, the word might have originated from Africa. It suggests that coffee was originally the Ethiopian word kaffa. However, since coffee was invented over a thousand years ago, we cannot be entirely sure where it got its name from, and thus there are other theories regarding its origin. The second theory states that the word coffee actually originated from Yemen, and the Arabic word quahwah. After becoming more and more popular in Africa, coffee rapidly spread through the Arabian Peninsula, and the fertile soil and climate of Yemen offered ideal conditions for growing coffee beans, enabling even more coffee to be made. For example, the Sufis of Yemen were avid coffee users in their rituals, and eventually coffee became more and more popular in all parts of society. 

From Yemen, coffee use spread to Turkey. It is said that the Ottoman Governor of Yemen introduced coffee to the Sultan, and that is how coffee was first introduced to Europe. Then, during the 1600’s, when trade took place between Istanbul and Venice, Venetian merchants would bring coffee back home with them. As a consequence, coffeehouses were invented and became popular all over Italy. Thus, it appears that European languages have gotten their names for coffee from the Turkish word kahveh. Due to the influence of trade and language contact, the Italian caffé and French café were born, and later the English word coffee was invented. 

After traditional coffee gained popularity in Europe, specialty coffees were being invented, and they needed new names. An example of these new coffees is a macchiato, a strong coffee with a little bit of warm milk that has bubbles in it. The word macchiato is formed within English by clipping or shortening, since it is short for caffé macchiato. Caffé macchiato is a combination of two words, caffé and macchiato. Caffé is Italian for coffee, and macchiato is the past participle of macchiare, which means to spot or to stain. The verb comes from the noun macchia, which is a spot or a stain. Macchia on the other hand comes from the Latin word macula, which is a blemish. This means that a macchiato is quite literally a coffee with a spot of milk. 

In addition to macchiatos, there is another specialty coffee that has roots in Italy. A cappuccino is a coffee made with heated mild with a thick mass of foam on top. The drink actually got its name from the Capuchin friars of Italy. The friars wear a simple brown robe, that includes a long, pointed hood. The name for this hood is cappuccino, and the friars are called frate cappuccino. After the drink was introduced to Italy, it was named after these friars, because the color of their robe was similar to the espresso mixed with frothed milk. The name stuck, and it was later borrowed into the English vocabulary. 

Then there is mocha, or mocha coffee in full. It is a type of coffee of good quality, and sometimes a mixture of coffee and chocolate, or some flavoring that mimics this. This type of fine coffee is usually produced in or shipped directly from Yemen. Just like the word coffee, there are two theories regarding the origin of the word. The first theory states that mocha is modelled on a French lexical item. In the 1700’s caffé de moka was popularized, and before that moka or moca was used to describe a cake flavored with coffee or chocolate. The first theory claims that the drink was named after this type of cake. The second theory is slightly more plausible, since it ties together the history of the coffee and its name. According to this theory, mocha originates from a proper name. It states that it is named after the Mocha port in Yemen, which is located near the entrance to the Red Sea. Nevertheless, through either French or Yemeni influence, the name spread throughout Europe and eventually solidified the name of this delicious drink. 

On the whole, all of these coffees and their names have a very colorful history. There are several word formation processes used, and this can be seen in the diversity within coffee jargon. As stated earlier, both the drink and the word coffee made its way through Africa, Yemen and all the way to Europe. On the other hand, words like macchiato and cappuccino have a simpler history. Macchiato is an abbreviation, which also includes a derivation from the verb macchiare. Cappuccino is simply named after the members of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in Italy. However, cappuccinos are not the only specialty coffees to be derived from a proper name. Mocha coffee most likely got its name from a socially significant location in Yemen, a port near the Red Sea. There are also other theories regarding the names of these coffees, but these are the ones deemed most plausible by linguists and historians.

To sum up, even though Italy has cemented itself as the coffee and food capital of the world, there is a complicated history behind these delicious drinks. Due to the rise of several coffee shop chains such as Starbucks, Espresso House and Wayne’s Coffee, it is easy to forget the history behind these drinks and how they came to be. We have to thank countries such as Ethiopia and Yemen, and languages such as Arabic and Ethiopian for the words most of us use on a daily basis.


Olivia Mujunen

Helsinki '21

Undergraduate student, studying English Philology at University of Helsinki. Her Campus Helsinki writer. Travel lover. Amateur baker and yoga enthusiast.
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