November 30, 2004

Latte lingo: Raising a pint at Starbucks

Back in October, Dave Barry's periodic "Ask Mister Language Person" column addressed the naming of coffee cup sizes:

We begin today with a disturbing escalation in the trend of coffee retailers giving stupid names to cup sizes. As you know, this trend began several years ago when Starbucks (motto: ''There's one opening right now in your basement'') decided to call its cup sizes ''Tall'' (meaning ''not tall,'' or ''small''), ''Grande'' (meaning ''medium'') and ''Venti'' (meaning, for all we know, ''weasel snot''). Unfortunately, we consumers, like moron sheep, started actually USING these names. Why? If Starbucks decided to call its toilets ''AquaSwooshies,'' would we go along with THAT? Yes! Baaa!

This is exactly how I feel about such things, and so for years I've been quietly but firmly using the terms small, medium and large, at Starbucks as I do elsewhere.

My reasoning is essentially the same as Dave's, only not as funny:

Recently, at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Death March, Mister Language Person noticed that a Starbuck's competitor, Seattle's Best Coffee (which also uses ''Tall'' for small and ''Grande'' for medium) is calling ITS large cup size -- get ready -- ''Grande Supremo.'' Yes. And as Mister Language Person watched in horror, many customers -- seemingly intelligent, briefcase-toting adults -- actually used this term, as in, ''I'll take a Grande Supremo.''

Listen, people: You should never, ever have to utter the words ''Grande Supremo'' unless you are addressing a tribal warlord who is holding you captive and threatening to burn you at the stake. JUST SAY YOU WANT A LARGE COFFEE, PEOPLE. Because if we let the coffee people get away with this, they're not going to stop, and some day, just to get a lousy cup of coffee, you'll hear yourself saying, ''I'll have a Mega Grandissimaximo Giganto de Humongo-Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong decaf.'' And then you will ask for the key to the AquaSwooshie. And when THAT happens, people, the terrorists will have won.

Tell it, brother!

There are just two problems, though.

The first problem is that Starbucks is right, in a sense. I've established that asking for a "small coffee" gets you the 12-ounce size; "medium" or "medium-sized" gets you 16 ounces; and "large" gets you a 20 ounce cup. However, in absolute rather than relative terms, this is nuts. A "cup" is technically 8 ounces, and in the case of coffee, a nominal "cup" seems to be 6 ounces, as indicated by the calibrations on the water reservoirs of coffee makers, and implied by Starbuck's own brewing instructions: "We recommend two tablespoons of ground coffee for each six ounces of water." And 16 ounces is otherwise known as one pint -- so we seem to have established that a "medium-sized coffee" is a pint of coffee, a concept that might have given even Balzac pause. When you think of it, "grande" is a more descriptive term. The next time I visit Starbucks, if I really think I can cope with 16 ounces of coffee, I'll try just asking for "a pint, please".

The second problem is that (most?) Starbucks outlets actually have four sizes of cups, not three. There's an unadvertised 8-ounce size, called "short". Look up short in Starbucks' own Latte Lingo lexicon, if (like most people) you don't believe me. Or try asking the barista for a "short coffee" -- it's usually worked for me, though even some Starbucks employees seem to be unaware of this size. Since this is usually the size that I really want, I was very glad to learn about it.

By the way, venti may well mean "weasel snot" in some language, but the Starbucksian marketeer who came up with the name was probably thinking of the Italian for "twenty". Or "winds", take your pick. Of course, the Italians would use the metric system, and 20 fluid ounces in metric is approximately 591.476 cc, but I don't think that cinque nove uno virgola quattro sette sei is going to make it as a product name. I guess you could round up and call it seicento. For all I know, maybe they do, somewhere out there in Metricland.

[Update: Melissa K. Fox points out that "pint" is ambiguous:

I'm glad to hear that there is still a "short" size at Starbucks -- I remember when "short" used to be coffee for "small", and now it distresses me that "tall" is the smallest size, when it used to mean "large". Bah.

Incidentally, the "pint" thing wouldn't work worldwide -- here in Britain, a pint is 20 fluid ounces (and the fluid ounces themselves might not be the same size as US ones, but I'd have to check on that), so if you asked for a pint you'd get a "venti" instead of a "grande".

Indeed. The AHD sez (with some elisions):

1. a. A unit of volume or capacity in the U.S. Customary System, used in liquid measure, equal to 1/8 gallon or 16 ounces (0.473 liter). ... c. A unit of volume or capacity in the British Imperial System, used in dry and liquid measure, equal to 0.568 liter. See table at measurement.

I think the British pint is not quite as big as a "venti" -- though I've never measured the actual liquid contents of a Starbucks "venti" sized beverage (the barista leaves a variable amount of room for added dairy products, and I don't know if the cup sizing allows for this or not...). And is an British ("Imperial") pint really 20 fluid ounces? This table just says that it's half a quart (half an imperial quart, natch). But yes, this site on "Capacity" explains that indeed, there are 20 (imperial) fluid ounces in one (imperial) pint. And read the rest to learn about kilderkins, firkins, pins, gills, pipkins and nipperkins. You will also learn that in the U.S., a "barrel" of fruits and other dry commodies is equal to 7,056 cubic inches, except in the case of cranberries, where a barrel is 5,826 cubic inches...

Meanwhile, Kai von Fintel observes that "Seattle's Best" is hardly a Starbucks competitor:

Another problem with Dave Barry's very funny bit is this: "Starbuck's competitor, Seattle's Best Coffee".

SBC is actually owned by Starbucks.


[Update 12/1/2004: Stefano Taschini writes:

I believe there must have been a small mistype: technically, a warm liquid that you ingest in quantities exceeding half a liter is "stock" not "coffee".

-- Stefano

P.S. South of the Alps, asking for "un caffè" will bring you around 25 milliliters of liquid, corresponding to ca. 5 teaspoons, i.e., 7.8 millionths of a spherical fathom.

Or a bit less than one ounce. Starbucks could call it an uno! ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 30, 2004 09:22 AM