illywords 03: a print journey through the language of coffee

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Espresso is one of the most widely used Italian words, appearing, one way or another, in something like 30 languages, from Amharic (espraso) to Lithuanian (ekspreso): so writes Giuseppe Antonelli in the latest issue of illywords, an offbeat journal-slash-magazine collaboration between the big Italian coffee roaster, illy, and the niche Italian graphic design and art publisher, Corraini Editions.

(He might have added Australian English to the list for “expresso”…)

In his contribution to illywords, Antonelli, a historian of Italian, traces the influence of coffee on the language, and references to coffee in Italian literature and culture.

He says the word “caffé” first appeared in Italian in the second half of the 17th century, although there are references to the drink as early as 1585. By the 18th century, Antonelli writes, it was in the title of a play by Carlo Goldoni – La Bottega del Caffè – and even the name of a news-sheet: Caffè.

A coffee glossary

The bulk of the 164 pages of illywords is a bilingual glossary of coffee terms – from acqua (water) to zucchero (sugar). The glossary goes into about as much depth in each of its three dozen entries as a coffee drinker who wants to be informed needs: this isn’t an encyclopaedia or a Q-grader’s course in coffee knowledge.

If you know a bit about coffee, you’ll learn a bit more from this edition of illywords, and several of its entries should settle any questions about the origin of this or the meaning of that. For example:

Caffè sospeso The habit of paying forward a coffee for someone less fortunate arose in Naples in the aftermath of World War II, when many people couldn’t afford to take part in this basic ritual of Italian life.

Bimodal distribution Only a serious barista would be across this one, which explains quite simply the desirability of differing particle sizes in ground coffee for ensuring even extraction.

What’s more, only someone who was into coffee and was a student of Italian literature would be familiar with Goldoni. The glossary entry on the Venetian playwright explains how La Bottega del Caffè was written when Goldoni took up a challenge to see how many plays he could churn out in one season (the answer: 16).

The play takes place inside a Venice coffee shop, and Goldoni said of it: “This Play has such universal traits that wherever it was performed, it was thought to be based on something that actually happened there.” Such is the universal appeal of coffee, and the everyday quality of the coffee shop experience.

Coffee from east to west

In the middle of the glossary section Luca Scarlini, an essayist, performer and translator, traces the journey of coffee and the coffeehouse from east to west, from the siege of Vienna in 1683, where the retreating Ottoman army left their store of roasted coffee behind: it was used to found Vienna’s first coffeehouse; to the mania for coffee that drove the plot of J S Bach’s Coffee Cantata (1734); and the role of coffee and coffeehouses in European politics and literature throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries:

“There was plenty of talk on the Risorgimento, as well as all the other European revolutions,” Scarlini writes. “Conversations had to be held in code, there were even instances of people writing messages in the coffee foam.” Crema has never been more political …

In the 20th century that revolutionary spirit flared at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and Le bouef sur le toit in Paris, before declining into the decadence of Caffe Society depicted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960 (and reprised in Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza in 2013).

There are little entries on the various coffee brewing methods – espresso, filter, French press, the moka pot – and a slightly cryptic description of the workings of the Neapolitan coffee pot.

There’s even a long entry on the coffee spoon: “The sun is mirrored even in a coffee spoon” it quotes Siegfried Giedion, a historian of architecture (though there’s no mention of T S Eliot’s Prufrock – “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” – nor of the eponymous Prufrock Coffee in London and its coffee-spoon artworks).

The last word in illywords belongs, of course, to Andrea Illy, CEO of illycaffe and the third generation of the famous Trieste family coffee company.

Coffee, he writes, “is a living matter, as alive as matter, as alive as language as it constantly evolves drawing on its own past and own tradition, as dynamic as the present in which it exists and ready to grasp the future that lies ahead.”

illywords 03: le parole del caffè/coffee words. Published by Edizioni Corraini. $AUS12. See

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