May 24, 2004

More winetalk imports into coffee lingo

A couple of days ago, I failed to understand the Quebecois accent of the barista at a Montreal café ("honi soit qui joual y pense..."). So when I went back to the same place yesterday for a sandwich and a cup of coffee, I was entirely prepared to cope with the choice "doux ou fort?" -- "mild or strong" -- pronounced so that the last word sounded like standard European French "fard".

Well, I got a different server this time, and after she prepared my sandwich and picked up a coffee mug, she asked me "velouté ou corsé?". Now "velouté" means "velvety", and I know it as a term for creamy soups and smooth-tasting wines; and the only experience that I've had with the French word corsé is in the context of wine terminology, where it means "(made) high in alcohol content" or something of the sort. So this left me in a state of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural doubt.

I figured "velouté ou corsé?" was probably just another name for the mild/strong choice. But then again, the server at the same place used "doux or fort?" for that choice just a day before., so maybe corsé meant "with a shot of brandy" or "with an extra shot of espresso" or something? Or maybe I had gotten the word entirely wrong again, due to pronunciation variation?

My uncertainty showed on my face, as usual, and so the barista tried to help me out by switching to English. "The coffee, do you want it smooth or coarse?" Now I was really confused. Being a decisive if random kind of guy, I said "corsé, s'il vous plait", as if I knew what that meant. The server didn't add anything -- brandy or otherwise -- to the coffee, and it tasted just the same as the "fort" variety had the previous day -- well-made brewed coffee, fairly strong, with the taste of a dark roast.

Pursuing the linguistic aspects later on, I learned that I had indeed apparently observed another example of the diffusion of winetalk into other areas. At least, that's what I concluded from perusing the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française , which is now online. (More exactly, the full eighth edition is online, and the first two volumes of the ninth edition, A to mappemonde). From this source I learned that the verb corser originated in the 16th century, as a derivative of cors, the old form of corps "body", and that it means to augment the alcohol content of a wine, to spice up a sauce, or to add complexity to a story, play or real-life situation.

The past participle corsé is from the 18th century, and the entry notes that the relevant sense of corps "body" is "the consistency of a thickening liquid" -- this is confusing, since higher alcoholic content in wine hardly thickens it, though there is a clear metaphorical sense in which a wine of higher alcoholic content has more "body". The gloss for corsé , translated, is: "having body, vigor. Of wine, high in alcohol. Of coffee, very strong. Of sauce, highly seasoned, spicy." There's no indication that a sauce is considered to be corsé merely by virtue of being thickened.

Here are the full entries:

CORSER v. tr. XVIe siècle. Dérivé de cors, forme ancienne de corps.
1. Renforcer, donner du corps à. Corser un vin, augmenter sa teneur en alcool. Corser une sauce, la relever, l'épicer. 2. Fig. Corser l'intrigue d'une pièce, en multiplier les péripéties. Corser un récit, le rendre plus captivant. Fam. L'affaire, la situation se corse, elle se complique, elle devient plus sérieuse. Péj. Corser une facture, la majorer abusivement.

CORSÉ, -ÉE adj. XVIIIe siècle. Dérivé de corps, au sens de « consistance que prend un liquide qui épaissit ».
1. Qui a du corps, de la vigueur. Un vin corsé, fort en alcool. Un café corsé, très fort. Une sauce corsée, relevée, épicée. 2. Fig. Une intrigue corsée, riche en incidents et péripéties dramatiques. Fam. et péj. Une addition corsée, exagérée, abusivement majorée. Des histoires corsées, osées, scabreuses.

From this entry, it's not clear what the order of the applications to wine, food and coffee were, but I'm guessing that coffee came later in the series, although apparently not very recently.

As for velouté, l’Académie is quite exact about what it means when applied to wine: "Vin velouté, Bon vin qui est d'un beau rouge un peu foncé et qui n'a aucune âcreté" -- "a good wine that has a beautiful red color, a bit dark, and that lacks any acridity". However, the extension to coffee is not mentioned at all. I'm not sure whether this is an oversight, or whether the usage with coffee is recent, but it seems likely that this is a case of diffusion of tasting vocabulary, whatever the timing. Here's the whole entry:

(1)VELOUTÉ, ÉE. adj. Il se dit des Étoffes dont le fond n'est point de velours et qui ont des fleurs, des ramages faits de velours. Satin velouté. Passement velouté. Étoffe veloutée.
Il se dit aussi de Certains papiers qui servent de tenture et dont les dessins, les ornements imitent le velours. Un rouleau de papier velouté.
Il signifie, par extension, Qui est doux au toucher comme du velours, ou Qui a l'apparence du velours; il se dit particulièrement de Certaines fleurs. Les pensées, les œillets d'Inde, les amarantes sont des fleurs veloutées. Peau veloutée. Teint velouté.
Vin velouté, Bon vin qui est d'un beau rouge un peu foncé et qui n'a aucune âcreté.
En termes de Cuisine, Potage velouté, Sorte de potage onctueux.
VELOUTÉ, en termes de Joaillerie, se dit des Pierres qui sont d'une couleur riche, foncée. Un saphir velouté.
VELOUTÉ s'emploie aussi comme nom masculin et signifie Douceur, caractère de ce qui est velouté. Le velouté d'une étoffe, d'une pêche.

English coarse is completely unconnected -- here's the OED's etymology for it:

[First found early in 15th c. No corresp. adj. in Teutonic, Romanic, or Celtic. The general spelling down to the 18th c. was identical with that of the n. COURSE; with that word it is still identical in pronunciation, both in standard English and in the dialects (e.g. Scotch kurs); the spelling coarse appears to have come in about the time when the pronunciation of course changed from (u), to (o). Hence the suggestion of Wedgwood that coarse is really an adj. use of course, with the sense ‘ordinary’, as in the expression of course, ‘of the usual order’. It appears to have been used first in reference to cloth, to distinguish that made or worn in ordinary course from fine cloth or clothes for special occasions or special persons; ‘course cloth’ would thus be ‘cloth of (ordinary) course’. Cf. the history of mean, and such expressions as ‘a very ordinary-looking woman’, a ‘plain person’.
Our first contemporary example of the spelling coarse is in Walton 1653 (where course however also occurs; it became frequent after 1700; course occurs occasionally down to 1800.]

The OED's etymology of English velvet also applies to the French cognate:

ad. med.L. velvetum (-ettum), also vel(l)uetum (-ettum), app. representing a Romanic type *villūtettum, dim. of *villūtum, whence med.L. vel(l)utum (velotum), It. velluto, OF. velut, -ute, Sp. and Pg. velludo, ultimately f. L. vill-us shaggy hair.

and the OED gives a gustatory sense for "velvety", which however focuses on touch metaphors and ignores color:

3.b. Smooth and soft to the taste.

The semantics of coffee is multidimensional. On the production side, there are the intrinsic qualities of the beans and their fermentation, the type and degree of roasting, the method of preparation and the ratio of water to beans, and so on. On the consumption side, there are many flavors, several textures, and these differ in degree as well as kind. But I have the impression that the pragmatic aspects are even more important -- what sort of cultural systems and social settings the speaker or writer wants to evoke...

In French as well as English, there's apparently a growing infusion of terms from wine talk into coffee lingo. This is partly because the oenophiles have plenty of terms to borrow, but I suspect that it's mostly a matter of borrowing prestige by using prestige-associated vocabulary.

[Update: There is a lovely storyat Pedantry, evoked by this post, which confirms (in passing) that velouté or corsé are the traditional Montreal terms for two traditionally-available alternative forms (types? degrees?) of brewed coffee.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 24, 2004 10:28 AM