Words with the fragrance of coffee

Lingua del cibo

The noun caffè indicates both the tropical shrubby plant of the Coffea genus and the famous drink made with the beans of the latter, which are roasted and ground. Coffee comes from the Turkish qahve, which in turn comes from the Arabic qahwa.

The word qahwa initially meant 'wine' or, more generally, 'exciting drink’. Then, towards the end of the 14th century it was extended to refer to a drink prepared using coffee beans.

Said beverage, prepared almost exclusively as an infusion according to Arab tradition, was introduced into Yemen towards the end of the 14th century by a saint from Mokha and used to extend the prayer vigils of the Sūfī mystics. It then spread to Turkey as well as other areas, Asia and north Africa. At the beginning of the 17th century, Venetian merchants finally introduced it to the West and as of that moment, the spread of coffee in Italy on has been unstoppable.

Initial documentation of this word in Italian dates back to between the 16th and 17th centuries. The noun caffè was already being used in 1585 with the meaning of 'tropical shrubby plant and seed of this plant’. Indeed, it was cited by Morosini in the Relazione ali ambasciatori veneti al Senato di Morosini (Report to the Venetian ambassadors of the Senate) as “a boiling black water as hot as can be tolerated, obtained from a seed called cavee”. With the meaning of aromatic beverage, the first citing recorded in dictionaries is from 1666, in the Letters of Francesco Redi: “Should you come across any Jew in Livorno who actually has information about the fate of the plant that produces coffee, I beg Your Excellency to question him for me.”

The widespread diffusion of the drink in Italy is shown by what Pellegrino Artusi wrote in, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well about coffee and its beneficial effects: “This precious beverage that spreads a joyful excitement throughout the entire body was called the beverage of intellectuals, the friend of literati, scientists and poets because, as it strikes the nerves, it helps clarify ideas, renders the imagination more active and accelerates thinking processes”.

Coffee is at the epicentre of a constellation of drinks – and words – spread all over the world, such as espresso coffee (or, simply, espresso), caffe latte and cappuccino.

Caffè espresso first and foremost, refers to coffee prepared on the spot using a special electric pressure machine, documented for the first time in 1918 in Alfredo Panzini’s Dizionario Moderno.

The word caffelatte on the other hand, was coined from the union of coffee and milk, and is in fact first documented as caffè e latte, coffee and milk. Tommaseo and Bellini’s Dizionario della lingua italiana (Dictionary of the Italian language) reads, under the entry coffee, “It is said and used as a single item: one caffelatte, two caffelatte". The first document with the spelling caffelatte is found Italo Svevo's The Conscience of Zeno, 1923 “…, but still I was in my bed, holding in my hand a cup from which I had drunk all the milky coffee”. The term caffelatte on the other hand, appears in the in the 1935 edition of Panzini's Dizionario Moderno.

Lastly, one of the most popular drinks requested at coffee bars for our breakfast is certainly the cappuccino, so called because of its colour which recalls that of the habit of Capuchin friars. Cappuccino has been documented since 1905, in the first edition of the Modern Dictionary, and alternates with the term cappuccio, which is particularly widespread in Northern Italy. Furthermore, cappuccino is now the true leader - along with pizza and spaghetti - of the spread of Italian gastronomy abroad.

Chiara Murru, Università per Stranieri di Siena