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coffee as metonym

July 10, 2017

I was in Camden Town on Saturday and saw a woman walking towards me wearing a T-shirt with the words “My day doesn’t start till after coffee” emblazoned across her chest. What could be the point of sporting such a slogan? Personally I drink tea in the morning, two or three cups of it, but it wouldn’t cross my mind to advertise the fact on a T-shirt. I just wouldn’t imagine that anyone else would be interested. Yet the strange thing is that I didn’t find the woman’s T-shirt strange. I’ve become used to people bragging about their coffee consumption; in the last few years it has become more and more widespread. I follow a number of writers on Twitter and they’re always posting comments about how they rely on coffee: “Ideas + coffee = books” was a recent tweet. And there is a cafe near me in Walthamstow with a blackboard saying “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you coffee, which is the next best thing.” (Is it, though? Really?)

Maybe the phenomenon is connected to the rapid proliferation of coffee shops on British high streets in the last ten years or so; or people working at home and so drinking more coffee; but whatever the reason(s), what seems to have happened is that coffee has become a sort of metonym, standing for a whole bundle of positive qualities: cool people drink coffee, creative people drink coffee, busy, energetic, happening, groovy people drink coffee. Being dependent on coffee is also seen as somehow humorous, but in a safe way, without connotations of debilitating addiction (“My day doesn’t start till after a can of Special Brew” would not hit quite the same note).

Obviously, I am happy that people enjoy their coffee. Good luck to them. But could they, you know, just get on with drinking the stuff without making such a song and dance about it?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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3 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    It’s odd how coffee has become a cultural artefact; presumably another example of conspicuous consumption as happened with bottled beer. If Baked Beans cost £10 they’d be trendily indispensable too.
    As an aside the cardboard sleeve slipped onto disposable coffee cups is called a zarf which apparently comes from an Arabic word meaning vessel.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    Ah yes, zarf, one of my favourites – it was originally the ornamental metal cup holder into which your cup was slotted. Another of my favourites is ‘aglet’, which is the short metal sleeve at the end of your shoelace. But to get back to coffee, an addiction to coffee (I don’t drink the stuff myself any more) is seen as a dependency that is somehow, as you say, a badge of coolness and creativity. Maybe the suggestion is that coffee is needed to wake you up because, like all cool, creative, fun people, you have been up all night being, well, cool and creative. And in a further refinement, you ‘grab’ a coffee, in the same way that cool, creative people in adverts or lifestyle features ‘grab’ a sandwich or ‘grab’ a swim in the swimming pool that is conveniently located in their block of flats. The implication here is that you are such an important person with so many demands on your time, no doubt from people less cool and capable than you, that you only have time to ‘grab’ something. Rather than, for example, taking your turn in the queue, taking your time and saying please and thank you. Which is what I still try to do.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    It’s odd that coffee drinkers are said to have a dependency while tea drinkers can guzzle gallons of the stuff, always accompanied by the same oohing and aahing and declarations of its unbeatability, without any such connotations.

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