Words. The bearers of meaning, the core of every natural language (although not from a scientific point of view – check out phonemes, morphemes and syllables). We hardly ever think about the words we use when we are speaking, texting or post something on the Internet. We take words for granted, as if their only meaning was the one we meant to convey when using them. As though they did not have a history. Today, while watching a documentary on Netflix (who does that?) I learned the history of the word bistro.

As far as my knowledge reached, I knew the Portuguese word “bistrô” and the English word “bistro” were both quite obvious borrowings from the Frenkutuch “bistro”, and all of them meant a small restaurant or bar, especially one in a French style. But as often as not, words have way more interesting pasts.

In 1812, Napoleon and his apparently unbeatable army invaded Russia. I will not go into all the very interesting historical events (you might well google it if you are not familiar with them), but it is enough to say that in that year the Napoleonic forces suffered their first big defeat and retreated after nearly succumbing to the fierce Russian winter. These facts alone could already count as extraordinary and amazing, but that was not the end. During the following two years, the Russian Army chased the French back into France and marched into Paris, for Napoleon’s utter humiliation.

The Tsar’s forces stationed in the French capital for a couple of months, which certainly led to quite a clash of cultures and countless situations of language contact. It is said that Russian soldiers would often come into the local shops and restaurants and demand to be served right away. In Russian, the word for “quickly” is “быстро” (pronounced more or less like “biss-tre”). It seems to have taken no time till smart shop owners associated the Russian word with the kind of service they sought to provide. And this is how the “French” word bistro was born.

This is only a highly possible, if not likely, account of where the word came from. There are a few other theories, as there does not seem to be any scientific research to have focused on tracking down the term. We should also bear in mind that, as interesting as that story may seem, it is still not the whole thing again. The very Russian word “быстро” certainly has its own history as well. How far into the dark past of words are you willing venture? Do not forget to stop by a bistro before and get yourself a coffee and big, yummy croissant!

See you all next time.

P.S. For those interested in the documentary I mentioned, look for “Empire of the Tsars”.



Do you fancy some coffee?

Are you having some coffee right now? I am. As a Brazilian, I have a close connection to this energetic drink. My country has been the highest global producer of coffee beans for over 150 years. A Lebanese friend of mine once proudly told me coffee had come from the Middle East, which is true. Partly true. Although the plant is native from Ethiopia, the drink was created in Yemen. It coffeemade its way onto our tables by “subdueing” several cultures throughout the past 600 years. There is this very cool book about the drink’s history. In today’s post, however, we are going to talk about the word coffee.

Have a look at the picture on the left, or google something like “how to say coffee in different languages” and you will notice the word changes very little, regardless of which language you pick. Apart from very few exceptions, the world uses a lot of variations of an Arabic word: قَهْوة (qahwah), but even this one might have come from another language’s word.

The English word came from Italian caffè in the 1600s. On its turn, the word cafe (meaning a small restaurant selling light meals and drinks) only appeared in English two hundred years later, coming from French café. As we can see, Romance languages appear to have quite a pervasive impact in the lexicon of English language. I intend to write about that in a future post.

Back to the history of the word coffee, where did Italian get its caffè from? It is mostly agreed that it comes from Ottoman Turkish kahveh, which, on its turn, comes from Arabic qahwah mentioned above. As for the origin of the Arabic word, there are several theories. One of them suggests that the word qahwah – originally used to refer to wine – derived from the verb qahiya (قهي), “to lack hunger”. Another theory holds that the root of the word, q-h-h, comes from Proto-Central Semitic and means “dark”. There is also a possible connection with the region of Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the plant comes from.

The drink (and its name) got to Europe with the Ottoman Empire, and from there it traveled westward to the New World. Meanwhile, coffee accompanied the Muslim spread to the East. Now, the whole world drinks it and calls it basically the same.

How would you like your coffee today?