The English Language Let Me Down


As I was preparing to brew my coffee this morning, it struck me how context changes the meaning of an English phrase. It has to be a constant frustration for non-native speakers.

The particular phrase, “making coffee,” started the various voices in my head, none of whom had had their coffee yet, discussing how English doesn’t do coffee justice. What does “making coffee” mean?

In English we use the word coffee to symbolize all the various forms of coffee, the bean, the grounds, and the elixir. Does “making coffee” mean I’m growing a plant? Am I playing God and synthesizing a bean? Am I grinding the beans? Am I assembling the grounds and water in the brewer? Am I some how condensing the dark liquid from the air?

Any native speaker understands that “making coffee” is the act of brewing. That’s where the contextual modifiers come in to play. If I was “growing coffee,” it’s understood I’m working on a plantation. “Grinding coffee” is the act of changing the beans into grounds. Of course, before I can grind, I have to “roast the coffee” to change the raw beens into magic little bullets of life.

Confused? No? Then you are a native English speaker. Yes? The Baptist church up the street offers ESL classes.

English has different words for the various states of water. Solid water is ice. The liquid form is just water. The gaseous form is steam. Those three words encapsulate the properties of water without needed modification. Ice is solid and cold. Steam is gaseous and hot. Why can’t we do the same for coffee?

We need clear, concise words for coffee in all of its glorious states, especially since we mostly talk about coffee before we’ve had a cup to wake us up. That groggy, pre-coffee, morning time is when we most need words that pack a punch because that is the mumbling-twilight of the day.

But what to call them? Creating new words is tricky. What suggestions do you have for the growing bean, the roasted bean, the ground bean, and the liquid of life?

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7 Comments

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  1. This blog entry reminds me of a discussion we snow plowers used to have relating to how the Eskimos have dozens of words for ‘snow’ while we down in the lower states have just the one.

    From now on I will never ‘make’ coffee again. I’ll be brewing it or picking it up at Starbucks.

  2. You’re the last person I suspected of being a language snob, Jean. On second thought, you’re the perfect person for the job. Decoding the symbols we call language is more than a hobby for you. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Being a teacher, I occasionally have students for whom English is a second language. I pity them. I love my language, but it must be so difficult to learn!

    To help with some of the “context-dependency” issues, would you suggest we start using declensions? That could help some.

    (Please say no. I don’t want to have to learn declensions).

  4. So your suggestion to my dilemma would be coffo, coffius, coffi, and coffeum? Hmmmm….No. I don’t want to learn declensions.

  5. And if you’re Eddie Izzard (which I’m guessing you’re not) then “making coffee” has another meaning entirely.

  6. Ask A Linguist!

    Declensions disambiguate the relation of a noun to the sentence predicate or to other nouns in the sentence.

    I think Barefoot is talking about having distinct vocabulary terms whose usage is limited by pragmatic or semantic context – One word for coffee that you’d use on the coffee plantation, and another word for coffee that you’d use in the kitchen. I suggest a whine-like grunting noise for usage in the kitchen pragmatic context.

  7. grrrr..coffeus..confourtus..char…char…just brew.

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