Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Veni, vidi, venti — or something

with 10 comments

Do you suffer from coffee confusion?  No, not a condition brought on by drinking too much of the stuff, but a type of head-spinning malady apparently afflicting coffee shop customers who don’t understand what ‘latte’ or ‘mocha’ means or that ‘tall’ (in coffee world) means ‘small’. (Does it? I’m a tea drinker.)

English: Coffee cup with cappuccino with coffe...In response, a UK store chain, Debenhams, is trying out a simplified menu in one of its London shops. A recent press release explains that anyone wanting a caffe latte will now have to ask for a ‘really really milky coffee’. But won’t that make me sound a bit like an eight-year-old?

Cappuccino and caffe mocha are also off the menu, replaced by ‘frothy coffee’ (try saying that in a hurry) and ‘chocolate flavoured coffee’ respectively.

Oh, and those ‘confusing’ size choices have also been dropped in favour of a ‘cup’ or ‘mug’.

I’m conflicted. Not only because I have no idea why someone would want to drink a venti espresso (that’s wrong, isn’t it?) instead of a non-tall tea, but because I’m usually all in favour of plain language. But I’m not sure about all of this. Isn’t the language part of the pleasure of visiting a coffee shop? I know we Brits are notoriously averse to learning Johnny Foreigner’s lingo, but if I have to pay £28.30 for a tall grande I’ll be happier if it at least sounds slightly more exotic than the mug of something I brewed in my kitchen at breakfast.

And the words aren’t that hard, are they?

Debenhams has also managed to complicate in its efforts to simplify. A black coffee is now a ‘simple coffee, with or without milk’. But isn’t a black coffee with milk a white coffee?

Perhaps a better solution would have been to keep the original names on the menu, but add a description in brackets. A winning blend (see what I did there) for both the cappuccino-challenged and the coffee cognoscenti.

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10 Responses

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  1. Er, Debenhams – how is life in the 60s working out for you? We’ve been here before kiddies, and moved on – you must have noticed? You’ll be going back to putting salt in black coffee again at this rate (very trendy in its day – 50-odd years ago – you’ll get there soon).

    Hi Deborah – welcome back!

    Ron

    09/11/2012 at 8:06 pm

    • Hi, Ron

      Thank you! I’m afraid I am what my nan would have called a ‘coronation customer’ when it comes to blogging these days. But this caught my interest. I wasn’t very confident writing about coffee as I rarely drink it, but ‘really really milky coffee’ sounded silly to even my tea-addled brain.

      Thanks again! Good to see you here.

      Wordwatch

      09/11/2012 at 8:17 pm

  2. Or something is right! One coffee shop I frequent has a large blackboard with a description — in words and images — of the many different coffees they make. Because many establishments use different terms (take that, Starbucks), this seems eminently sensible. But then, it’s a college town 🙂

    Good to see a post from you, Deborah!

    Maggie Manning

    09/11/2012 at 8:59 pm

    • Hi, Maggie

      Thank you, and it’s lovely to hear from you. I hope all is well with you. The idea of different places using different terms for various coffees is slightly intimidating to me. Best if I just stick to tea, I think!

      Wordwatch

      10/11/2012 at 7:19 am

  3. It’s a nice idea, but poorly executed. Instead of simplifying things, it would actually just confuse me further if ordering there. Is the espresso made under high pressure through compacted coffee or do they just mean it’s strong because they added an extra scoop of Nescafé? Is it an actual latte (made with steamed milk) or have they just added half-a-pint of milk to the coffee? It probably would, however, appeal to my Mum, and she’s very much their demographic.

    awindram

    09/11/2012 at 10:31 pm

    • Hi! Thanks for dropping by — it’s great to hear from you. Poorly executed is about right. And all your questions perfectly highlight exactly why. But then if your Mum would like it, perhaps Debenhams is accurately targeting its customers… so, in summary, I’m rubbish at making up my mind about this one.

      Wordwatch

      10/11/2012 at 7:28 am

  4. Sounds like Debenhams cafès have become deadly boring. You’re right when you say that much of the pleasure of visiting a coffee shop is the ‘exotic’ names for different coffees. I’ll stick with Starbucks & Cafè Nero etc.

    jessielansdel

    12/11/2012 at 11:30 am

    • Hi, and thanks very much for stopping by — it’s nice to see you here. Yes, even though I’m not much of a coffee drinker, I do like looking at the menu board, even if some of it is a bit of a mystery to me!

      Wordwatch

      12/11/2012 at 11:37 am

  5. I’m sorry, over 20 years ago, when I lived in Ontario, I knew a cafe latte, as a cafe au lait. Remember, we are next door..to Quebec which is a bit more French in spirit.

    A cafe au lait, if one looks up the French in France how they make it, is coffe steamed up with lots of milk. Usually in a bigger mug.

    Then cafe au lait, devolved into a cafe latte, which confused me.

    Jean

    19/01/2013 at 5:16 am

    • Hi, Jean

      Thanks for that extra info. Coffee certainly seems to stir up a lot of language-related confusion.

      I’m glad I drink tea!

      Wordwatch

      19/01/2013 at 8:48 am


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