7 eye-opening “coffee” etymologies

Today is National Coffee Day. Tomorrow is International Coffee Day. But for java junkies like myself, every day is coffee day. Here’s a fresh cup of some tasty coffee-related etymologies.

How do you take your coffee? Why, with a little etymology. “Goblet of coffee” by Carlos Sillero, courtesy of freeimages.com.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests coffee in 1598. Some etymologists have linked coffee to Kaffa, the Ethiopian region where coffee was first grown. But the word actually appears to derive from the Arabic qahwah, which may have originally meant “wine.” Some basic meaning of “brew” might explain the sense development. The OED notes that the root of this qahwah is a verb, qahiya, “to have no appetite,” which coffee and wine lovers will agree is absolutely preposterous. The Turkish kahveh , borrowed from the Arabic, influenced the spelling and pronunciation of coffee in its many European cognates (e.g., café).


In Italian, espresso literally means “pressed out,” alluding to how the strong, dark drink is produced under stream pressure. English has been sipping espresso since 1945. And don’t feel too bad if you’ve been called out for pronouncing espresso with an x: the English express is essentially the same word as espresso, from the Latin exprimere, “to push out.”  


US speakers shortened latte from caffè latte (1840s) in the late 1980s. It’s Italian for “milk coffee.” Café au lait and café con leche are the respective French and Spanish equivalents. Lait, leche, and latte are all poured from Latin’s lac, which also gives English the words lactate and even lettuce. The Greek cousin of lac is seen in galaxias, literally “milky circle,” hence Milky Way and galaxy. Coffee is truly of cosmic proportions. 


A caffè macchiatto is a “stained coffee,” as it’s espresso served with just a spot of hot or foamed milk. In Italian, macchia means “spot” or “blemish,” from the Latin macula for the same. Something that’s immaculate, then, is the etymological opposite of a macchiato. But like latte, both caffè macchiatto and the abbreviated macchiatto have been tasting immaculate on English-speaking lips since the 1980s.


The color of a cappuccino, apparently, resembles the brown hoods of the Capuchin monks. These friars indeed take their name from the distinctive “hooded cloaks,” or capuccio or capuche in Italian, they wear. These words come from the Latin Latin cappa, source of cap, cape, escape, chapel, and even a capella. The word was served up in English, according to the OED, by 1948, when author Robert O’Brien described the beverage as “gray, like the robe of a capuchin monk.” Brown? Gray? Whatever the case, cappuccino makes for a truly beautiful color.


The word coffee may or may not hail from Kaffa, but mocha indeed comes from Mokha,  the Red Sea coastal city in Yemen and historically important marketplace for coffee. Mocha coffee, now associated with the addition of chocolate to a latte, has been delighting English speakers since 1773. 


A café Americano is espresso with added hot water – a term that wasn’t intended as a compliment when Central American Spanish started using the term in the 1950s. The description stereotypes an American taste for a milder cup of joe. Perhaps a coffee snob will agree that the americano makes for an inferior cup, but any proper coffee addict will never turn down a good americano – or coffee-inspired word origin.

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As others kept their eyes peeled for wildlife, I kept mine peeled for – what else – a good etymology. On the Alaska cruise my wife, some close family, and I recently enjoyed, this effort entailed not staring down binoculars, but bottles. Yes, I’m talking about hooch.

Had to buy the beverage package, didn't I? "Hooch." Ink ballpoint, and orange highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Had to buy the beverage package, didn’t I? “Hooch.” Ink, ballpoint, and orange highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Among other things, of course, many of Alaska’s historic towns are famous for their old saloons, where grizzly pioneers once guzzled hooch.

This term for alcohol, particularly liquor such as whiskey made cheaply and often illegally, is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1897, right in the gullet of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Hooch, the OED explains, is shortened from hoochinoo, taken from Hoochinoo, the name of a small native tribe who distilled it. The tribe dwelled on Admiralty Island right by Juneau. Alaskan hooch had quite the notorious reputation – the OED‘s earliest citation, M.H.E. Hayne’s Pioneer of Klondyke, describes it as “weirdly horrible” – and which reputation was often grossly transferred or contributed to Alaskan natives themselves. Apparently, soldiers, and later gold miners, picked up the term after the Alaska Purchase and it became especially popular during Prohibition.

Hoochinoo itself could be made from berries, flour, or sourdough starter with the aid of yeast and molasses. The name Hoochinoo, however, is made from the Tlingit, Hutsnuwu (Xootsnoowú), “grizzly bear fort.” Tlingit – whose initial Tl– is pronounced much like the final sound in the Nahuatl origin of tomato, tomatl, as we’ve seen – is the language of the selfsame people native to southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

“Grizzly bear fort” is apt, as on Admiralty Island today, brown bears (over 1600) far outnumber natives (over 600). The bears also outnumber the speakers of Tlingit, estimated at around 500. I think I need some hooch.

Hooch_Ink, Ballpoint, Orange Highlighter - Scribblem ∫ r ∫