Coffee and caffeine; laws and morals

« previous post | next post »

A Korean chain coffee shop, Caffe Bene, recently opened a branch at 38th and Chestnut in University City, Philadelphia.  This is a design on one of the walls:

Modeled after the motto of the University of Pennsylvania, "Leges sine moribus vanae" ("Laws without morals are useless"), "Caffeum sine coffeinum vanae" tells us that "Coffee without caffeine is useless".  You may or may not agree with either or both of these mottoes.

Grammatical notes from Joe Farrell:

"Coffee" in Latin can apparently be caffeum and coffea. I'm not sure if the meanings of the two words differ at all. The latter is the name of the botanical genus, so I think maybe I'd go with that. Caffeine appears to be coffeinum, and as the object of the preposition sine it would go into the ablative case, so, sine coffeino. The last word has to agree with "coffee," so that if you said coffea, you would say vana; if coffeum, vanum. If you wanted to allude more clearly to the Penn motto (a quotation of Horace, Odes 3.24.35–36) and go  for maximum intelligibility to English speakers, you could say coffeae sine caffeino vanae, "coffee(s) without caffeine is/are useless." It's not obvious that someone writing about coffee in neo-Latin would spell the plant with an o and the substance derived from it with an a, but stranger things have happened.

[Thanks to Zach Hershey]


  1. Robert Coren said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 10:30 am

    In my experience, it would be strikingly unusual for the creator of such a sign in such a context to care particularly about the accuracy of the Latin.

  2. Phillip Minden said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    "Coffee" as a countable noun (= cup of coffee) would be an Americanism, though. Doesn't even work unmarkedly for many speakers of British English.

  3. Matt said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    Romanes eunt domus (Monty Python, Life of Brian,

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    Phillip Minden: Do you have "coffees" for "kinds of coffee"? That would work here, in my opinion. (Of course, there's no reason that a mural in an American coffee shop shouldn't use an Americanism.)

  5. Federico Moreno said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 11:41 am

    I'd rather take 'caffeum sine caffeino vanum', since coffee refers to the species.

  6. Brett said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    @Philip Minden: "Coffee" as a countable noun does not work for this speaker of American English. I had actually thought of it as characteristically British. (There was some British comedy I watched a lot of, though I can't remember which one, in which one of the characters used it a lot.) That means it is probably neither specifically British nor American.

  7. JJM said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 12:37 pm


  8. Phillip Minden said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    @Brett, thanks!

    @Jerry Friedman, yes, but less smoothly than "cheeses of the world" or some others. I can't generalise, though.

  9. DaveK said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

    "Give me four coffees to travel, two black, two regular". Heard in every coffee shop in America.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    @Brett,@Philip Minden: I'm with Brett on this. When I first got to the UK 30-plus years ago, I was definitely struck by the use of coffee in the sense of 'cup of coffee', and assumed it was a British usage. Of course, if what DaveK says is true, the usage could have spread to the rest of the English-speaking world along with the spread of coffee culture (Starbucks, cappuccino, flat white, etc. etc. etc. – try to recall just how bad most coffee was in the English-speaking world 30-plus years ago).

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    This Google ngram graph suggests that "two coffees" has been about equally common in U.S. and British English for quite a while.

  12. bobbie said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 8:39 pm

    "Give me four coffees to travel, two black, two regular". Heard in every coffee shop in America. — so says DaveK

    Seriously? I'd say "four coffees TO GO" Where in the United States do people say "to travel" instead of "to go"?

  13. Scott Mauldin said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 9:29 pm

    "It's not obvious that someone writing about coffee in neo-Latin would spell the plant with an o and the substance derived from it with an a, but stranger things have happened."

    And yet that's exactly what English does, so why not?

  14. M.N. said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

    For people who find "two coffees" ungrammatical: what would you say instead, and are there any mass nouns you *can* do this with? Two beers? Two soups? Also bad?

  15. Jen said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 1:29 am

    'Do you want a coffee?' is fine for me, but 'Do you want a tea?' isn't. Very odd!

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 2:14 am

    @M.N. It was exactly the contrast between two beers and two coffees that struck me when I first got to the UK. The former has always been just fine in my grammar, but the latter took some getting used to.

  17. maidhc said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 4:32 am

    Jen: 'Do you want a tea?' sounds strange, but I would be OK with "Two coffees and two teas". Actually 'Do you want a coffee?' sounds a little odd to me. 'Do you want coffee?' would be more natural, or better 'Do you want some coffee?'.

    In a restaurant, "two white wines" would be OK. Presumably we're talking about the house wine. Something like a reception where the bar only has one kind of white wine, take it or leave it. And we want two glasses of it. On the other hand, in a liquor store one might say "we have 457 white wines" and that would mean different brands.

    I think the Latin standards of the University of Pennsylvania may have fallen off over the last 100 years, but perhaps the academic emphasis has shifted to subjects of more immediate relevance.

    The discussion puts me in mind of British rhyming slang, where a few years back "Britney Spears" was short for "beers". I'm not sure if this is still current. There was a time when you could say "Bring us three more Britneys".

  18. markonsea said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    When did BrE speakers start asking for "two beers" rather than "two pints"?

  19. Brett said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    You can say things in restaurant orders that would otherwise be ungrammatical. While, "Would you like a coffee?" does not work for me, it would be fine to order, "Two coffees, both black," at a diner. But when ordering comestibles, almost anything can be used as a count noun. Examples mentioned above include "soup" and "white wine." In ordinary conversation, neither of these are acceptable as count nouns in my idiolect*, but they are fine when ordering.

    *In all cases (that I can think of), there is the count noun meaning of types of coffee/soup/wine/etc. French roast and Sumatran are "two coffees"; clam chowder and minestrone are "two soups." But this is unrelated to the count noun forms referring to servings.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 10:30 am

    I don't get where the neuter caffeinum comes from. In all the Romance languages the word for 'caffeine' is feminine, as though derived from Latin caffeina.

  21. Adrian said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    Did someone say "two teas"?

  22. Bloix said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 10:57 am

    ""Coffee" as a countable noun (= cup of coffee) would be an Americanism, though. Doesn't even work unmarkedly for many speakers of British English."

    As an American lawyer with English clients, for the last two decades I've been proposing to clients in London that, since I'm in town for some other reason, they might like to have "a coffee" – meaning that they might meet me at a Costa for 20 minutes and chat about their business. It's a way to make sure they're satisfied with the service they're getting from my firm and perhaps to glean (or give) some useful gossip.

    Now I'm being told that what I thought was a Britishism is really an Americanism. Being a bit alarmed I resorted to The Google:

    "It’s the only one open when the older children are dropped off and mums want a coffee."

    "Knowing what people like is not as easy as it seems, she explained over a coffee near the company’s London offices."

    “"It’s fantastic,” he says. “You get a coffee on board, and on the way home you can have a gin and tonic or a glass of wine."”

    So I'm feeling relieved.

  23. Cervantes said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    This is a design on one of the walls

    Not bad. At least they're trying.

    So I'm feeling relieved.

    Not for long if you have another coffee.

  24. Rodger C said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    I once read one of the many articles-by-a-newcomer-to-Appalachia whose author–I don't know where they were from–listed "a coffee" as one of the quaint regionalisms they'd heard, one presumably confined to the mountains. I was flummoxed, as if they'd called attention to "a cup." This is shaping up to be one of those expressions with a sharply defined but mysterious distribution.

  25. Mary Kuhner said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    To further confuse matters, in my household a bottle of iced tea is "a tea" but a cup of tea is not. "Do you need any more? There are three teas in the fridge and a cup of tea in the microwave."

  26. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

    It feels to me like a non-regional, context-specific usage. "A coffee" is what you can get when someone will give you a standardized portion. Thinking about my own usage, I order "a small coffee" on the south side of the street, where they fill a cup for you; but "coffee" on the north side of the street, where you get yourself a mug and use it to drink however much you'd like from their urns.

    If I were using Latin, I think I'd use "coffeum" on the south side and "caffea" on the north side. Of course, if I saw on the wall "Caffeae sine caffieno vanae", I'd think they'd run out of decaf, both the house blend and the french roast.

  27. Christine said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    cafea (-ae f.) [all vowels short, stress on first a] = ipsa potio cafearia
    cafeum (-i n.) [long e, stress on e] = domus,ubi cafea potionesve similes sumuntur

    cf. Sigrides Albert, Cottidie latine loquamur, Saraviponti 2010

  28. Phillip Minden said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

    Just to clarify: my point was mainly that it wasn't good Latin but modern English usage, and only secondarily whether it was more typical of American usage. In addition, I didn't say it wasn't used in England. It is, but, I thought and think, it's not unmarked.

  29. Keith Murphy said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 11:08 pm

    I have been struck, as well, by the phrase "a coffee" that seems to be common in British English, but not in American English.

    I have thought that maybe a phrase like "a coffee" or "a tea" would be a sort of parallel to "a treat", implying a singularity of consumption that would not really happen in Britain for tea, which is consumed repeatedly as a matter of course, but would for coffee, which is still a bit "special". Whereas in America, coffee fills the same workplace role that tea does in Britain.

  30. Bob Ladd said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 2:39 am

    @Keith Murphy: Your explanation unfortunately is based on the false premise that tea is still the main workplace stimulant in the UK. Even when I first got to the UK in the 1980s, that was already starting not to be true any more. See e.g. here for a recent summary.

  31. L said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    ""Give me four coffees to travel, two black, two regular". Heard in every coffee shop in America."

    "Four coffees" is idiomatic to my American ear.

    "To travel" is definitely not. (Though the meaning is clear.)

    "Two black" is fine.

    "Two regular" is meaningless. I would guess from context that the speaker means with cream and sugar, but that's also what I would guess if I heard, "Two black, two splargnatz." Without context, a "regular" coffee would refer to a size, not a mode of preparation. And that's only if the coffee shop offered a "regular" size, which they generally don't.

  32. Bill said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 2:49 pm

    Moving from near Chicago to Maine some decades back, I learned that regular coffee in the great state refers to coffee with cream and sugar. Local usage defined regular as a mode of preparation.

    Cream and sugar being located far to the non-count side of the count/non-count spectrum, I had no problem understanding the instruction to serve "regular coffee" with two creams and one sugar, the determiners clearly referring to portion controlled amounts of cream and sugar normally used at a fast-food restaurant.

  33. Cervantes said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    Bob, thanks for the WP article. Unfortunately, it and the underlying charts prepared by "KILN, a British data visualization and digital journalism institute" are quite misleading. From the article:

    Tea consumption per person has fallen consistently since the early 1970s, plummeting from almost 68 grams per week in 1974 to only 25 grams per week in 2014, as shown in the chart at the bottom right. The plunge of more than 63 percent is one of the biggest among all beverages in the country. […] Coffee's trajectory, however, has been just the opposite. Its consumption has tripled since the early 1970s.

    Notice that the numbers for tea are given in absolute terms (grams per week) while the increase in coffee consumption is expressed only as a percentage. Similarly, if you look at the charts and ignore the scales on the vertical axes, you get one impression, whereas if you do examine the axes, you see that coffee consumption in 2014 is still lower (8 grams per week) than tea consumption (25 grams per week).

    Granted, tea's dominance is markedly less impressive if you include the "instant coffee" Brits consume (12 grams per week) — but why would you want to go and do that?

    The article also says:

    Meanwhile, the country's taste for coffee was blossoming, so much so, in fact, that in 1986 coffee sales in the U.K. outpaced tea sales for the first time in history.

    If here they're talking about how much people paid for tea vs. coffee in 1986, they may be correct — I have no idea — but the charts and the article do not prove it. What the charts say is that in 1986 Brits consumed 53 grams of tea per week, as compared to 5 grams of coffee and 17 grams of instant coffee.

    I don't doubt that tea consumption has fallen and is falling but, if you ask me, KILN and whoever wrote the WP article (Roberto A. Ferdman) both deserve a severe talking-to.

  34. Giacomo said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    FWIW, the Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis translates coffee as cafaeum or potio cafaearia. I suspect (but don't know) it means the latter for the countable version, because it translates decaf coffee as potio cafaearia sine cafaeino, which I don't find catchy and wall-worthy.

  35. Brett said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 6:42 pm

    @Cervantes: Making comparisons in grams between coffee and tea is probably not useful. Number of equivalent servings would be much more relevant.

  36. Cervantes said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 8:01 am

    Brett, I agree. As I said, they all deserve a severe talking-to.

  37. Chas Belov said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: It becomes even more interesting when I add "two cups of coffee" on Google ngram. "Two cups of coffee" is only twice as frequent as "two coffees" in Britain but perhaps four times as frequent in the US.

  38. Chas Belov said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

    I'll also note I now accept coffee, tea and bread as count nouns (with bread=loaf) where I wouldn't have accepted them about 18 years ago. (Which I know because I flagged "two breads" for a friend whose novel I was beta reading.)

  39. Cervantes said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

    Two coffees and two teas I can swallow but "two breads" is beyond the pale.

  40. Jon W said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

    "Coffee regular" (meaning with milk and sugar) sees a lot of use in New York as well as in New England (as Bill noted). But I'm still mystified about where in the US people describe a take-out order with the words "to travel". Where do you live, DaveK?

  41. Ray said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 7:46 am

    can we talk about the name of the shop, which seems to think "caffe" is a verb? (and which seems to expect that people will pronounce "bene" as "bean"?)

  42. Anthony said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 8:28 am

    In Chicago there's a small chain of coffeehouses where the opposite of "to go" is "to stay" (instead of the usual "for here," meaning to be consumed on the premises).

  43. Sean Fearnley said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

    Ray, almost certainly 'Caffe Bene' is supposed to be an Italian phrase, meaning 'good coffee'.

  44. Ray said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 9:13 am

    hmm… the whole thing feels 'off' to me. even caffe bene's logo has the accent going in the wrong direction. maybe it's a starbucks thing?

  45. Robert Coren said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:05 am

    And in any case, it may be supposed to be Italian for "good coffee", but it isn't. Bene is an adverb.

  46. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 8:39 am

    Scott Maudlin wrote:

    And yet that's exactly what English does, so why not?

    For some reason, Swedish does it in reverse: kaffe and koffein.

    (Two continue the tangent, kaffe can be used as a count noun in the sense of "cups of coffee", in which case it takes the unmarked plural normally reserved for units of measurement, but not, in my 'lect at least, in the sense of "kinds of coffee".)

  47. Sadie said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 2:51 am

    New here. I'm oddly stressed out by the fact that we never found out where DaveK was ordering his coffee!

RSS feed for comments on this post