What does the Name of your Favourite Coffee Mean?

It seems like only a few years ago, when, as chain coffee shops like Starbucks became popular, every second comedian felt compelled to joke about how coffee shops had so many crazy types of coffee.

Now though, such chains are commonplace, and we’re all quite used to the idea of being able to get a variety of coffees. Have you ever wondered though, what all those names actually mean?

Unsurprisingly most of the names of the most popular coffees are Italian (they’re pretty good at coffee), and here’s what they mean:

  • Caffè Americano: quite simply, American coffee. Rumours suggest that this originates from when American G.I’s based in Italy during World War II would top up their espressos with water, being unused to such a small serving (an Americano is not simply a regular coffee, but specifically an espresso with added hot water). This could easily be true, or the name might simply be due to the fact that Americans (and other English speakers) generally drink larger servings of coffee than Continental Europeans. It’s one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed: we like to cradle a big, comforting cup of coffee, but on mainland Europe, most servings are small and enjoyed quickly, rather than savoured and continuously sipped on.

  • Espresso: the first thing to note here is that the name’s not expresso, though a lot of English speakers find it hard not to pronounce it that way due to the existence of the English word express, and the relative lack of English words beginning with es-. And even thought it’s quick to drink, espresso doesn’t really mean express. It’s the past participle of the Italian verb esprimere, and means pressed out, referring to the steam pressure involved in producing it. N.B. express does actually share the same etymological origin as espresso (the Latin verb exprimere), but the modern meaning of express as fast is long-removed from much of the original sense of physically pressing something out.

  • Ristretto: this is basically an espresso made with the same amount of ground coffee, but less water. This explains the meaning, which is restrained or limited, referring to the more limited amount of water. The opposite of ristretto, an espresso with extra water (but not as much as an Americano), is a lungo (long).

  • Affogato: not as common in English-speaking countries, an affogato is a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso, and means drowned. Lovely.

  • Caffè Macchiato: an espresso with a shot of milk. Means spotted or stained, referring to how the milk “stains” the espresso. Sadly unrelated to the English word muck(y), as I’d hoped there was some ancient connection.

  • Caffè Latte: a combination of an espresso and steamed milk (latte in Italian). Note that I’ve used the full name caffè latte here (caffè is the Italian for coffee, by the way, if that wasn’t obvious), as strictly, latte means just milk in Italian. Of course if you’re ordering in another country they’ll probably understand you want a coffee if you ask for a latte, especially if you’re in a café, but if you’re in Italy, it’s best to be clear.

  • Cappuccino: two P‘s and two C‘s – a double espresso with steamed milk foam. The name refers to Capuchin monks, as it was believed that the colour of a cappuccino was identical to their habits.

Note by the way, that even though the above names are all Italian in origin, when using them in English you still treat them like English words, adding an S to make them plural.

Some other slight curiosities about coffee and English, while I’m on the subject:

Flat white is the only popular coffee type found in coffee shops with an English name. Its origins are the cause of contention between Australia and New Zealand, with it originating in one of the two countries in the 1980s.

Starbucks is named after the character Starbuck in the novel Moby Dick. The company’s founders had no special love for the character or novel: rather one of them believed that words beginning with St- sounded strong. The lack of an apostrophe is the company’s own choice, and I distance myself from it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m suddenly craving a cappuccino…

14 thoughts on “What does the Name of your Favourite Coffee Mean?

  1. I use huge coffee mugs here at home… and yes, I did notice the small coffee cups in Europe. Good thing breakfast was free in hotels we stayed in, and that included coffee, unlimited .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Drinking my morning coffee as I read this. I always feel slightly apologetic asking for “just an ordinary filter coffee please” at the large chains with three blackboards full of choices!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, a big coffee and tea drinker myself I found this an interesting read. I choose to drink tea at home, but when I’m out I like to treat myself to a nice coffee, as I don’t have any fancy gadgets at home.
    I am a visitor of Starbucks (sorry) and I do wonder where they’ve got their Macchiato from, as you say it’s traditionally an espresso with a dash of milk, but at Starbucks it is predominantly milk, more of a latte, a long drink. Saying that, I do quite like it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ahh, I love this! I definitely wasn’t familiar with the derivation and meaning of these coffee types, which I consistently order (and rely on heavily to restore me to the land of the living). I recently did a post on coffee hacks, so was immediately drawn to the subject line of your post. Engaging and informative read!


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