The language of COFFEE From espresso to mocha

When ordering your morning brew from your favourite barista, you’re probably more concerned with getting a caffeine fix than with the etymology of your chosen cuppa. But there are some interesting stories behind our most popular coffees that are worth exploring.

Incidentally, there’s some uncertainty about the origin of the word coffee itself, but it probably comes from the Arabic word Qahwah. This is a word with multiple meanings including, confusingly, “wine”. But that’s another story.


  1. ESPRESSO

Does this word refer to the “pressing out” of the coffee during the brewing process? Or is it an indication of the speed with which it can be made and drunk? Or perhaps it’s a reference to the fact that each espresso is lovingly made just for you? The truth is that it’s all three. In Italian, as in English and French, the word for express has these three distinct meanings. The first espresso machines, made in 1906, used this play on words to communicate the benefits of the new technology.


  1. MACCHIATO

In Italian, macchiato means “stained” or “marked”. So a caffe macchiato is a “stained coffee”. The stain refers to the splash of milk that’s added to an expresso to turn it into a macchiato. Don’t try to order a macchiato in Portugal though. There, the drink is known as a café pingado, which means “coffee with a drop”.


  1. CORTADO

This Spanish word is the past participle of the verb cortar, which means “dilute”. This refers to the diluting of the espresso to make a drink that’s milkier than a macchiato but more intense than a latte. The Spanish origin is evident in the preparation of the milk too – it’s heated but not frothy as in many coffees of Italian origin.


  1. CAPPUCCINO

The vestments of Capuchin monks inspired the name of this favourite morning brew. The word capuchin means “hood”, and refers to the large and distinctive hooded cloaks the monks wore. Over time, the word capuchin was also used to describe the light brown colour of the cloaks. It was then adopted as the name of the coffee of the same colour. The suffix -ino means “little”.


  1. MOCHA

Mocha is a city in Yemen that was a big early grower and exporter of coffee beans. The coffee beans grown in Mocha produced a uniquely chocolatey brew. It’s this fact that led to chocolate-flavoured coffee drinks becoming known and marketed using the word “mocha”. The city is also the origin of the moka, which is a type of pot for brewing coffee.


Posted in Etymology