Café lexicon – a linguistic case study, by Josh Bengough-Smith

It’s no secret that I love coffee. What some of you may not know is that aside from being an aspiring linguist, I am also a fully-trained barista. So, in recognition of (Inter-)National Coffee Day, which was on Tuesday, here’s a blog post devoted to coffee vocabulary!

Latte Art by Josh Bengough-Smith (photo his own).

Latte Art by Josh Bengough-Smith (photo his own).

As in any workplace, there are specific terms that only make sense amongst those in the know – workplace jargon. So in most cafés you will find talk of extraction, group heads, tampers, wands, whirlpools, and so on. For those of you not in the know, here are some handy definitions:

Extraction: This is the status of the coffee as it is brewed, and is related to the coarseness and weight of the grounds, as well as the volume of water used and how long that water takes to pass through the grounds. Whilst the specific extraction times, water volumes, and so on will vary depending on the brew method, all coffee can be perfectly extracted, over-extracted, or under-extracted. Over-extracted, and it will taste bitter and over-caffeinated. Under-extracted, and it will taste sour and weak. The perfect extraction will be flavoursome, sweet, and strong.

Group head: This is the part of the espresso machine where the coffee grounds and hot water meet under great pressure to create your perfect espresso shot. The grounds go into the basket, which fits snugly inside the group handle, which then locks into the group head.

Tamper: A vital piece of equipment for an espresso machine. It’s that little device that looks like a stamp that your barista uses to compress the coffee grounds into the basket of the group head ready for its extraction in the machine. Ideally, your barista will stand next to the counter, stick their arm out and form a right-angle with their elbow directly above the group handle basket, and press down firmly and evenly a couple of times, checking the level with a quick flick of their wrist. A skilled barista will get this all into one smooth motion that looks effortless. I must admit I do judge coffee bars by their tamping method – if they just plonk the tamper down in front of them, they have no idea how much pressure they’re applying to the grounds, and so the coffee will most likely taste awful or at least be inconsistent as a result.

Wand: No, we’re not off to be witches, but this part of the coffee machine is actually pretty magical. The steam wand is pretty much self-explanatory: it’s that metal probe that your barista uses to inject high-pressure steam into the milk for your hot drinks.

Whirlpool: This is a technique of texturing milk. Using the steam wand at a certain angle and depth in the milk jug, you can get the top layers of microfoam to fold into the lower layers of milk. This is one of the ways that your barista creates smooth, creamy milk for the perfect flat white (NZ style).

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I’ve not even gone into detail about the names of espresso, cappuccino, etc., or other technical terms like backflushing! For now though, I shall present the details of my particular case study, and a few humorous examples of language that are peculiar to this case – the small café I used to work at.

Hot things are hot! This is used whenever hot things are being held and the barista has a sense of regret/fear/urgency because they weren’t expecting it and need to put them down very, very quickly! It also serves as a warning to those around that they need to make sure they’re not in the way.

Brush its teeth and wash its face. This is the way I was taught to clean the coffee machine group heads, you brush the coffee grounds out of the grooves (its ‘teeth’), then you wipe them away from the main shower plate (its ‘face’) with a cloth.

Have we made all of the monies? This is a peculiarity to do with checking how much has been made – after all a café is a business that needs to make a profit. Translation: ‘Have we made target?’ or ‘Are we on track for our target today?’. The plural morpheme ‘-s’ is often added to mass nouns (such as ‘money’, ‘milk’) in this particular café, perhaps as incongruous humour. Also ‘all of the…’ is regularly used to emphasise that there is a vast, even overwhelming, quantity of a particular thing: ‘all of the customers!’ = ‘there’s a queue out onto the street!’, and most often (said to the potwash) ‘we need all of the things!’ = ‘we have none of the things we need!’.

Burn the witch! This phrase rather surprised me the first time I heard it. I believe the context was that somebody ordered an extra, extra, extra, extra hot latte, so ‘Burn the witch!’ (said in an extremely sinister voice) were the only instructions I was given. A much-needed injection of humour into a stressful day!

Where are the dondés? There are several cases of multilingualism to be found in this café, though the extent to which we can call it true multilingualism is perhaps open to debate. This example means ‘Where are the things I’m looking for?’. Other examples of multilingualism in the workplace include the random greetings that are used, such as Aloha! Buongiorno! or Borri da!, and also the phrase Help! Will somebody be my milkmaid? This is usually pronounced with a German accent, with a note of panic, and is a polite request for whoever is available to steam some milk.

These examples are a good demonstration of this particular close-knit social network in action. Within a small team of nine staff, five of whom are working full-time and therefore in contact with each other for a good deal of time, it is natural that social bonds will begin to be formed. And language is one way of demonstrating your belonging to a particular social network. It is not surprising then that the terms above have spread quickly amongst this network’s members.

So next time you’re in a coffee shop, in fact even in your own place of work, listen out for those catchphrases that indicate group belonging. You might be surprised by the underlying group dynamics you discover!


An earlier version of this post was published on Josh’s own blog:

This entry was posted in Josh Bengough-Smith and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s