Form and content of a cup of coffee LO26583

From: Leo Minnigh (
Date: 04/27/01

Dear LO'ers,

It is interesting to look at the different expressions that are used for
different cups of coffee (should be cups with coffee) in different
countries. I have limited knowledge on this subject, only based on my own
experiences. Possibly it could be extended by others.

Coffee is a substance that is introduced in most cultures for some
centuries, so it is fairly new in languages (in comparison with the age of
the language itself). But coffee became so much part of culture that
coffee-expressions found a solid place in language.

The size of the cup (form)
Some languages (but not English, or French) have the possibility for
diminutives - extensions which reduce the 'size' of the object. Some
languages know also an extension for enlargement.
Thus, in some languages there are seperate words for an ordinary sized
cup, for a large cup, or for a small cup; some languages have all these
possibilities, some two, and some (as in English) only one. In Dutch and
Afrikaans it is possible to reduce the size. The word for cup is 'kop', a
small cup becomes 'kopje' or 'koppie'. *) (see note below)

[the interesting ethymological history of *cup* is another story;
sometimes it denotes a concave object (e.g. *cap*), in the present case it
refers to something to put things in. This reversal of the meaning
(content) occurs quite often in languages, particularly in words
describing forms].

So, a *kopje koffie*, refers in Holland to a small cup of coffee.
In the Portuguese language, this small-sized cup is referred to as
*cafezinho* - a small coffee. So in Portugal and Brazil it is not the size
of the cup, but the quantity of the content of the cup, although it is
clear that the size of the cup is ment. A small quantity of coffee in a
large cup will never be called a *cafezinho*.
Portuguese is one of the few languages which have the flexibility to
enlarge the size of objects. A large cup of coffee could be called a
*cafezao*, although this expression is hardly used (I used it in Brazil,
because I like coffee and the cafezinho was not much more than a thimble

All these small-sized cup of coffees have nothing to do with the sort of
coffee (the content). That is different with Italy. The small coffee in
that country is called a *espresso*. But *espresso* certainly refers to
the way the coffee is prepared (under pressure). And because this way of
preparation results in strong coffee, the quantity could be less, hence a
smaller cup.

So far the form (with Italy as transition to the content)

Coffee in the cup (content)
In lots of non-Latin countries the coffee is mixed with milk. In some
Latin countries this way of coffee is also known, but usually only
consumed by tourists or by locals only during the breakfast. In Spain this
coffee + milk is called *cafe cortado*, in Italy it is the *cappuccino*.
The origin of this latter Italian expression is for me mysterious - what
has this thing to do with the Capuchin monks? (curiously, in Holland a
'kapucijner' is a special type of brown coloured bean, not a coffee bean).
Consequently (because of the mixture and larger quatity) the cups for a
cappuccino are larger than those for an espresso.
In Spain is however another possibility: cafe con leche (coffee with
milk). In fact it would be better to speak of *milk with coffee* - the
quatity of milk is more than the quantity of coffee. In the Netherlands
this type of coffee is known as *koffie verkeerd* (= wrong coffee). In
France it is *cafe-au-lait* (also commonly consumed during the breakfast).
The milk component in coffee is hardly known in Brazil. But in Brazil the
coffee is not pure coffee either. The common way in that country to serve
coffee very, very sweetened. It is hard there to get unsweetened coffee
(so it took me a lot of trouble to get my way of coffee: Um cafezao sin

So now it becomes clear that their is a difference between Brazilian
coffee (coffee and sugar) and American coffee (coffee and milk). But an
Irish coffee is yet something else.

In these days when ordering a cup of coffee we tend to leave even the
coffee, only referring to the type. In Spain 'un cortado' is fully
understood as a coffee with a small cloud of milk (in Dutch a 'wolkje
melk'). In Italy when ordering a 'cappuccino' means for sure that you
don't get a special type of monk served.

Since coffee seems to became the drink for social events, in my country
the expression 'Let's drink a coffee', or 'come on the coffee' (op de
koffie komen), means more than the consumption of coffee - there is
something to talk about and meet each other. And here, a 'coffee table'
means a lunch with lots of sandwiches, cake, milk and coffee too, but that
is certainly not the most important part of the meal. The expression
'coffee time' refers to roughly eleven o'clock in the morning. But with
all these time differences among the participants of this list I hesitate
to invite you on the coffee on coffee time, that will be a very long
lasting event.

The importance of the diminutive form in a language is very large. It
could for instance cover the communication with a varnish of soft sympathy
and friendship - it makes the nouns less sharp. The diminutive used in
this way does not so much reduces the size, but reduces the 'sharpness'.

dr. Leo D. Minnigh
Library Technical University Delft
PO BOX 98, 2600 MG Delft, The Netherlands
Tel.: 31 15 2782226
        Let your thoughts meander towards a sea of ideas.


Leo Minnigh <>

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