Sunday, May 17, 2009

History of the Word "Coffee"

The history of the word "coffee" involves several phonetic difficulties. The European languages got the name of the beverage about 1600 from the original Arabic qahwah qahwah, not directly, but through its Turkish form, kahveh. This was the name, not of the plant, but the beverage made from its infusion, being originally one of the names employed for wine in Arabic. Sir James Murray, in the New English Dictionary, says that some have conjectured that the word is a foreign, perhaps African, word disguised, and have thought it connected with the name Kaffa, a town in Shoa, southwest Abyssinia, reputed native place of the coffee plant, but that of this there is no evidence, and the name qahwah is not given to the berry or plant, which is called bunn bunn, the native name in Shoa being būn. Contributing to a symposium on the etymology of the word coffee in Notes and Queries, 1909, James Platt, Jr., said: "The Turkish form might have been written kahvé, as its final h was never sounded at any time. Sir James Murray draws attention to the existence of two European types, one like the French café, Italian caffè, the other like the English coffee, Dutch koffie. He explains the vowel o in the second series as apparently representing au, from Turkish ahv. This seems unsupported by evidence, and the v is already represented by the ff, so on Sir James's assumption coffee must stand for kahv-ve, which is unlikely. The change from a to o, in my opinion, is better accounted for as an imperfect appreciation. The exact sound of ă in Arabic and other Oriental languages is that of the English short u, as in "cuff." This sound, so easy to us, is a great stumbling-block to other nations. I judge that Dutch koffie and kindred forms are imperfect attempts at the notation of a vowel which the writers could not grasp. It is clear that the French type is more correct. The Germans have corrected their koffee, which they may have got from the Dutch, into kaffee. The Scandinavian languages have adopted the French form. Many must wonder how the hv of the original so persistently becomes ff in the European equivalents. Sir James Murray makes no attempt to solve this problem.

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