Mispronouncing words is a common everyday occurrence. From being pacific about the way you like your steak prepared to taking a dip in the Specific Ocean, we all damage diction from time to time, leaving us to mix up meanings and anger English majors. A library, for instance, is a place to check out classic literature; a libary, on the other hand, is a deceitful piece of fruit.
Sometimes, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Language is fluid, and the dictionary acknowledges this by adding new definitions and phrases each year. Not only that, but embracing novel terms celebrates creativity and innovation. While using common words is fun, making up your own may be even funner.
With regard to coffee, this sort of thing happens a lot…and a latte. In fact, according to studies, espresso is one of the words most often mispronounced in the English language. Caffeine lovers flock to cafes asking for “expresso” and baristas happily oblige. It’s such a typical mispronunciation that it’s practically become a word in itself. The variant is so common that many spellcheckers won’t mark it as wrong, and that includes the spellcheckers who aren’t utterly worthless (ahem, Microsoft).
But it turns out that there is a method to the madness...and that “madness” might not be so crazy after all.
The Customized Cup
According to Merriam-Webster, espresso is an Italian word defined as, “Coffee brewed by forcing hot water through finely-ground, dark roasted coffee beans.” In the Italian language, the term translates into “one serving” or “per the customer’s request.” In other words, espresso is a type of coffee made for an individual. It’s not brewed in a pot and shared by a group of weary-eyed business people or students cramming for midterms.
The customized cup of espresso is perhaps part of the reason “expresso” was born. Espresso is made expressly for the person drinking it. The speed at which espresso is brewed may also add to the confusion. Since a shot only takes a handful of seconds with the right equipment, it’s caffeine via express delivery.
Looking at Latin for the Answers
There may be no language that influences modern-day vernacular as much as Latin. It’s the stern grammar teacher tsking over our shoulders and judging us each time we say “acrost.” But, surprisingly, Latin also gives credence to the use of “expresso” as a coffee term.
Espresso is believed to derive from the Latin term “exprimere” — a word defined, in part, as meaning “to press or squeeze out”...something that happens when espresso is made and hot water is forced through coffee grounds, squeezing out caffeinated magic. Even the English word “express” has similar meaning, with synonyms that include “force out”, “squeeze out”, “expel’, “extract”, and “convey.”
All of this complicates the espresso versus expresso debate by providing justification for the use of both, the use of neither, and the claim that, in the wee hours of the morning, we should just be able to point at the menu and grunt. It may even mean that, eventually, “expresso” will be a perfectly acceptable variant of espresso, one that people can freely use without drawing the side-eye of seasoned coffee connoisseurs.
When it comes down to it, coffee invites a certain individualism. Some people prefer light roast while others prefer dark. Some drink it black, others put a little coffee in their cream and sugar. Some love mochas and some tip their hats to cappuccinos. Some opt for decaf while others liken decaffeinated coffee to nonalcoholic beer: they don’t get the point.
Coffee completes us no matter how we drink it or what we call it. If you order espresso, how you pronounce the word really doesn’t matter. In short, feel free to espress yourself any way you want.