The Macchiato and The Problem of Babel

  Let’s get this out of the way: like an American football or an Italian political corruption scandal, a macchiato made by a well known chain is not called a macchiato anywhere else. The term ‘macchiato’ means ‘marked’ in Italian, and refers to an espresso with a spritz of foam and nothing else; that’s how Gorilla, and other shops that take coffee seriously do it. The slurry of caramel syrup, milk, and espresso presented at a ubiquitous national chain is only called a macchiato because they were running out of available words for things on their menu.

 This presents a problem for us: when somebody asks for a macchiato, do we ask for clarification? Do we prepare our macchiato without asking questions, confident in the knowledge that we’re doing it the right way? We see our fair share of mixups and mishaps surrounding the macchiato problem, and it seems like an inconvenience that’s going to stick around for a while. This is the problem we all have when language is used in a new way; it fosters misunderstanding, whether it’s a teenager in 1985 explaining to her parents that ‘bad’ means ‘good’ or that same person in 2005 explaining to her boss that ‘literally’ means ‘figuratively’.

  Ultimately, can we fault the branding goons at bucks for their decision? Sure, they’ve introduced a (probably permanent) division and confusion in what was once a usefully precise term. But without invention in language, we wouldn’t have Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein, or Waka Flocka Flame. And besides, the history of coffee terminology is full of confusion and misdirection: for all that we list and prepare our café au lait and our latte as distinct drinks, the two words mean the same thing in two languages. The difference between our approach and that of the bucks marketing machine is a difference of degree rather than kind. The macchiato problem is inconvenient and frustrating, but for us, as coffee lovers behind an espresso machine, and as humans in the world, it’s the cost of doing business.


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