Coffee sayings and phrases

Roasted coffee beans in Ethiopia
Roasted coffee beans in Ethiopia

It’s a measure of how important coffee has become to our culture that it’s found its way into the language, via so many sayings, phrases and proverbs such as: “Wake up and smell the coffee” – a commonly-used phrase meaning to ‘pay attention to a situation and try to do something about it’. It seems to be American in origin, although there’s no record of its first use. Example of usage: “If first-time buyers think it’s easy to get on the property ladder, they need to wake up and smell the coffee.””Coffee-housing” – Used as a verb, the Cassell Dictionary of Slang defines this as a mid-19th century phrase meaning to gossip or chatter. Originally in use among the fox-hunting fraternity, it refers to the perceived behaviour of those frequenting 18th century coffee houses. Example of usage: “Is Jane coming, or is she still coffee-housing?”

“Coffee and cocoa” – a 20th century rhyming slang phrase, meaning “say so”. Abbreviated and popularised on BBC radio in the 1950s as “I should cocoa”.

Most cultures seem to have a proverb involving coffee, such as “coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love” – an old Turkish saying, which does perfectly describe the strong, sugary cups of espresso-type coffee popular in Turkey, which is more usually brewed in a saucepan rather than a coffee machine to increase its strength. There are several other Turkish coffee proverbs, in line with that culture’s long relationship with the coffee bean – another is, “Coffee and tobacco are complete repose”. In a similar vein is the Ethiopian proverb, “Coffee and love taste better when hot.” The Dutch are less hot-blooded, with their proverb being, “Coffee has two virtues – it is wet and warm”.

Whether funny or true, these phrases track our relationship with coffee going back centuries, and emphasise how important it is both to the individual and to society as a whole.