TNQDE: The Coff-iad

Hands up, how many of you drink that dark, bitter substance that keeps half of our fair nation from giving up on life in favor of a nap? Do you know where it got its name?


I love the story of coffee. I love it, because you can pick up a dictionary, look at the languages noted in its short etymology, and see a brief history of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance written in a few words, if you know what you’re looking at:

“Alteration (influenced by Ital. caffe) of Ottoman Turk. qahveh < Ar. qahwah; akin to qahiya, to become weak.” (s.v. “coffee” in the A.H.C.D., 4th ed.)

Not quite sure how to interpret this? I’m here to help. Let’s start with qahiya and work backwards. The story of coffee actually begins in Ethiopia, where the plant grew natively, and from there was brought into Egypt, Yemen, and the Arabic world, where it was roasted and brewed in a fairly modern way for the first time sometime between the 9th and 15th centuries AD. The Arabic word qahwah originally a type wine thought to kill a person’s appetite for food; qayhiya is the verb for losing appetite, so the connections makes sense.

What else makes sense, and what would have been easily lost by the lack of a written record, is that coffee grows natively in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia. Coincidence that the names are so similar? Probably not. My guess would be that when coffee first came to speakers of Arabic, the name of the region would have been a salient part of the description of the novelty and that the name would have been changed slightly to fit with an existing word. That sort of shift happens all the time.

From qahiya or Kaffa, qahwah traveled from the Arabic world over the the Ottoman Empire, who gave it their spin and sent it along to Italy with the rest of their knowledge and goods that were so useful in dragging Europe out of the Middle Ages. The Italians received the qahveh and passed it along from Rome to the farthest reaches of Holy Roman Empire and its faithful friends who dutifully carried it out to the Americas in their various quests for God, Gold, and Glory with only the slightest vowel shifts in the pronunciation to mark their national independence from Rome.

And that, my friends, is how coffee conquered the world.

2 thoughts on “TNQDE: The Coff-iad

  1. Drinking coffee will never be the same! I have all these ancient civilizations to thank for I drink today. I’ts good to have all this knowledge and now I have a subject for coffee break! Thanks for the info. Love, Grammy


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