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Mind your language

Coffee house

12 January 2013

9:00 AM

12 January 2013

9:00 AM

In the series of radio programmes on culture, a guest of Melvyn Bragg’s declared that the distinction between high and low culture was never strict, as a Wagner opera was first performed in a music hall. This is to suggest that music halls always offered acrobats and performing dogs. But the Liverpool Music Hall, for example, advertised in 1814: ‘Beethoven, The Mount of Olives (“A New Sacred Oratorio”)’.

The fortunes of the name music hall are paralleled by coffee house. We hear, from George Sandys’s visit to Constantinople in 1610, of ‘Coffa-houses’ where they sit ‘chatting most of the day, and sippe of a drinke called Coffa’. Pepys went to a coffee house in 1664 ‘to drink Jocolatte’. By 1891, the Oxford English Dictionary expressed a rare comment. After noting that coffee houses were ‘much frequented in 17th and 18th centuries for the purpose of political and literary conversation’ the lexicographers added that ‘the places now so called have lost this character, and are simply refreshment-houses’.

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They had gone the way of coffee-room — by 1891 ‘generally, the name of the public dining-room in a hotel’. At just such a one, in Yarmouth, the young David Copperfield arrived, to catch the London coach, and had his dinner eaten by the waiter. ‘It was a large long room with some large maps in it,’ he remembered. ‘I doubt if I could have felt much stranger if the maps had been real foreign countries.’ A coffee-room is no such thing now, although in fossilised gentlemen’s clubs they still call the place where they eat dinner the coffee-room, even if they then withdraw to the drawing room for coffee.

Starbucks has sought earlier connotations of coffee house in its ‘heritage coffeehouses’, where ‘large community tables, club chairs and wooden blinds evoke a turn-of-the-last-century feeling’. Perhaps, though it is odd that Starbucks calls itself Starbucks. Moby-Dick is not saturated with coffee. It mentions ‘cheap lodgings, and the best of pea coffee’; Queequeg eschews coffee and rolls in favour of rare steaks; a visiting German captain offers no coffee but begs lamp-oil, and another ship uses a spare coffee pot to collect sperm oil. That’s about all the coffee to be expected from Mr Starbuck of the Pequod

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