Tag Archives: phrase origins

Make coffee

Coffee made its way into English through Turkish, ultimately coming from Arabic qahwah, which Arabic lexicographers say originally meant “wine” and is derived from a verb meaning “to have no appetite”.  Coffee – the word and the drink – appears to have burst onto the scene (and into European languages) around 1600, and we see it as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese cafe, the Dutch koffie, the Danish and Swedish kaffe, and the Russian kophe.

This early coffee was made the Turkish way, in which one dumps ground (or pounded) coffee beans in water and brings it to a boil, then immediately pours the thick, strong liquid into a cup, allowing the grounds to settle a bit before drinking.

Long-handled Turkish coffee pot

The long-handled Turkish coffee pots look rather exotic to us now; we are probably more familiar with the shape and form of European coffee pots, which could get pretty fancy, but had the same general shape as the teapot (in fact, many pots were used for brewing either coffee or tea).

Wooden-handled French coffee pot from the early 1700s

Speaking of, let’s say you wanted to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee, what might you ask someone to do?

This is what you have               and this is what you want

I think the most common answer would be that we would ask someone (politely) to make coffee.

Would you ask them to brew coffee?  We use the term brew with coffee often enough, but usually as part of the phrase freshly-brewed.

Brew is from the same Germanic root as broth, a root that had wider meaning of “make a decoction, infuse”, which is really what you’re doing if you are soaking something in water in order to extract a flavor (which is where broth comes from too, right?). A decoction, by the way, is something that has been boiled to extract “the soluble parts or principles of the substance”.  Not suprisingly, decoction is similar in many ways (and often used interchangeably) with concoction, from the verb concoct, “to make ready, prepare, by heat”, usually by boiling.  (Both words’ original meanings had to do with digestion. Perhaps an after-dinner coffee connection?)

A great many of the Linguistic Atlas responses to “what do you say when you want a new pot of coffee?” reflect the very basic way to make coffee – throw the grounds in a pot full of water and put it on the stove.  Lots of people said they’d ask someone to boil some coffee or steep some coffee.

The verb to steep comes from an old Germanic root staupjan “vessel for liquor”, which means it’s related to a word some of you might recognize, stoup “pail or bucket” (now considered to be mainly Scottish), and also related to stop “pail or bucket” which is now obsolete (found in writing 725 through 1895).  The verb to has as its ultimate origins the Latin  bullī-re “to form bubbles”.

“to bubble up in agitation through the action of heat … to roll about under the influence of heat”

Some of the Atlas phrases did reflect the technology behind modern-day coffee machines, inspired by the French drip brewing machine (the biggin), and patented in the U.S. in the mid to late 1800s.  The stovetop percolator was patented by Hanson Goodrich in 1889 (an earlier version was patented by James Nason in 1865).

The action of percolation occurs when  liquid is “cause[d] … to pass through the interstices of a porous body or medium” in other words, “to strain or filter”.  Ah, so no longer would shaky coffee cup-holding hands fear the stirring up of the grounds resting at the bottom…

See those grounds? No longer a concern.

When the Atlas interviews were being conducted in the 1930s and 40s, a lot of folks responded that they would ask someone to percolate some coffee (or to perk some coffee).

“Perk” from “to percolate” and “perk” meaning “cheerful, lively”? Oddly unrelated. Etymologically, at least.

The use of percolate for coffee first appears in writing in the Modern Language Journal in 1959:  “We percolate our coffee, toast our bread, and fry our eggs on electrical devices without rising”.  As this passage sounds enticingly critical, I tracked it down.  To the 1958 President’s Address to the Modern Language Teachers Associations, entitled (wait for it) “The Crucial Importance of the Humanities in a Science-Dominated World”.

[Allow me an additional excerpt: “the study of the humanities ideally should prepare, and accustom, the individual to make decisions where no final or generally acceptable decisions are possible”.]

By 2001, however, the modern edge of percolation has softened to nostalgia, “We percolate coffee every day and that smell serves as a cue to remind people that, aha, it’s time for breakfast” (from the Palm Beach Post).  From all “sciencey” to “quaint” in less than 50 years.

Speaking of quaint, one common response among southern speakers interviewed for the Atlas Project was draw some coffee.

The etymological trail of to draw goes something like this: From Germanic dragan “to pull” we move to Old English draw “cause (anything) to move toward oneself by the application of force” (which is why you can still draw a sword, draw water from a well, draw breath, attention, or a curtain, or, well, . . . a blank). Draw comes to be applied to liquids and the idea that you ‘pull’ them from the opening of a vessel. From here, we get the use of draught (and draft) for “a drink” and an explanation of why we draw blood.

The idea of pulling a pencil along paper given us “drawing” as we think of it in art.

Drawing coffee would be extracting coffee from the brewing vessel.  Which sounds like a good idea about now.  Cheers.


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