November 16, 2012
"I’ll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon." -Steve Martin
A coffee shop in Britain has changed its menu to use simpler terms. Instead of offering latte they offer "Really really milky coffee". If you want a mocha you need to order "Chocolate flavoured coffee", and they don’t serve espresso, but you can get "A shot of strong coffee". And this inevitably raises the question: why? Yes, we’ve all stood in the line at the coffee shop trying to decide between the double chip mocha affogato and the skinny ristretto latte (over ice). And as much as it annoys us when someone else does it I’m pretty sure we’ve all held up the line still trying to make up our minds because most coffee shops have so many options you need binoculars to read the menu even up close, especially when it’s hand-written on a chalkboard in twenty-seven different colors. And even though fancy coffee drinks have been around for at least a couple of decades now I think it’s still a really good idea to add explanatory notes to coffee menus, because, in spite of having drunk enough of them to fill Lake Michigan, I’m still not entirely sure what a frappe is. But if I go up to the coffee shop counter it’s going to take me a lot longer to give the long version to the guy taking my order than it would to just say I want "a frappe", although it’s really not the time factor that concerns me. After all if they include explanations of their drinks it’s probably going to take even longer for people to decide what they want because they’ll be standing there slack-jawed and saying, "So that’s what a doppio is" before they order one and then, ten minutes after drinking it, head off to fill Lake Michigan.
Having detailed explanations would at least solve the problem I sometimes have in coffee shops of asking the guy behind the counter, "What’s the difference between the Sumatran sallow and the Belizean blonde?" and having him say, "Uh, one’s made from beans…" which makes me want to punch him in the cash register. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the guy who knows way too much about the coffee. As long as I’m not holding up the line I really don’t mind a long explanation, although usually somewhere between being told that the Chiapas blend has hints of cherry, chicory, and charcoal and that it’s harvested by attractive mountain people who are paid a decent wage and have a dental plan I want to say, "Okay, I’ll take a large, Captain Soulpatch, you can talk and pour at the same time." No, my real problem with the simplified coffee menu is that it’s a dumbing down of the language. Instead of asking people to learn and use new, well, relatively new, and interesting words it’s going backward. Language is supposed to evolve, and, since language shapes how we think, adding new words to our vocabulary expands our mental range. At the very least new words add subtle gradations to our speech. Think about the difference between telling someone your house is painted green and telling them it’s painted sage.
Any attempt to simplify language reminds me of no less a person than George Orwell suggesting English writers should, as much as possible, restrict themselves to Anglo-Saxon words rather than using Greek and Latin derivatives. That kind of attack makes me wonder if Orwell ever read a novel called 1984, written by an English author whose name escapes me at the moment. Although I also think that as long as we’re importing new words into our language the least we can do is get them right. Specifically I mean the Italian word "espresso". Look carefully at that word and you’ll notice there’s no X in it. It’s not an expresso. Expresso is a brand of stationary bike that you get on to burn off the calories from that large double caramel mocha you had this morning. It’s fantastic that Americans have imported espresso and rebranded it as our own so we can sell it back to Europeans at greatly inflated prices, but I think as a matter of courtesy we should at least pronounce it correctly. If you go to a coffee shop and ask for an "expresso" you should be given really really milky milk. With a shot of milk. And a twist of lemon.