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"Coffee" or "a coffee"?

I heard a character on an American television show talk about having “a coffee” and thought, aha, more British infiltration.

Americans talk about having “coffee” or “some coffee” or “a cup of coffee.” Having “a coffee” is a British locution, obviously being insinuated into American usage by all those imports from perfidious Albion on public broadcasting.

Not that we’ll all be taking lifts to the upper floors and buying any suspiciously cheap merchandise that fell off the back of a lorry, but there is a continual seepage of British vocabulary into the reservoir of American English. When men’s suspenders came back into vogue in the 1980s, for example, many people started calling them “braces,” after British practice. And now and again voices are raised in pointless fury about the phrase “go missing,” which Americans have found too useful to give up.

Across the water, there is periodic sniffing about American vulgarisms corrupting the purity of the only true and pure English. One of the notable recent exponents of this view is Matthew Engel, whose shrill and ill-informed tantrum for the BBC was roundly thumped by Mark Liberman at Language Log.

Perhaps I was corrupted in my youth by studying British literature in graduate school, but I switch back and forth, Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope, Rex Stout and P.D. James, without tremor or qualm. I follow with delight Lynne Murphy, who writes the Separated by a Common Language blog under the name Lynneguist, exploring the differences in vocabulary between British and American English. (The post on women’s shoes is illustrated.) It seems to me to be foolishly limiting to think that the one should exclude the other, denying the possibility of cross-pollination.

Besides—familiar warning coming here—British English is no more pure than American English or any of the other Englishes. English is, and always has been, an entirely mongrel language. It is like a crow (American) or jackdaw (British) always picking up shiny things. And being the language of freedom-loving and upstanding peoples, it will never tolerate some self-anointed bureaucracy like the French Academy to pronounce on its “purity,” which is largely imaginary anyhow.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:55 PM | | Comments (14)


To me (a Brit), the prime avian pickers up of shiny things have always been magpies, not jackdaws.

I disagree that Americans have found the phrase "gone missing" too useful to give up. It's not Americans, but American journalists, specifically TV "journalists," who find the phrase "useful" — they imagine it makes them sound "cultured."

I don't know about Baltimore, but here in flyover country, the only time one hears the phrase "gone missing" is when a TV news anchor says it.

The British locution that always struck my ear was "in hospital," as opposed to "in THE hospital."

I'm not sure you can assume that "a coffee" is in fact British. When I looked at the question (2007) I found early cites in both English and American sources (Google Books):

An 1877 memoir by an Eton schoolboy: "Palley comes into my room and wants me to come to Brown's for a coffee and bun."

An 1891 (British) handbook of Christian living: "A gentleman...strolled out to the open-air restaurant for 'a coffee.'"

But the earliest was American, from William Dean Howells' "Venetian Life." He tells of asking a poor traveler how much money he had: "He shows me three soldi. 'Enough for a coffee.'" (Is he translating here? I don't know.)

Someone could do a more up-to-date search, though, and maybe settle the question.

Might the "coffee" / "a coffee" be a regional thing rather than a Yankee / Redcoat distinction?

"A coffee" has been around for a long time, but its frequency is variable in these United States.
Waitress: "Would you like coffee?
Customer: "Yeh, bring me a coffee."
Waitress: "Ca I get you anything?"
Customer: "Yeh, I'll have coffee"
Waitress: What can I get you?"
Customer: "Cuppa coffee, please."
The usage varies by situation and interrogatory, but I agree that it seems to be more deeply lodged in BrE.

I blame my fondness for British mysteries and East Enders more than my undergraduate degree in English for the fact that I cannot resist the "u" as in labour. I find that I do not incorporate Britishisms into daily conversation, but they are certainly stored mentally so that reading or hearing them does not require interpretation. Among my favorites are "cattle flyover" (a special highway overpass for the purpose of allowing cattle to cross from field to field, and "articulated lorry" (a semi), but the differences are spread by the telly now, and definitely enliven both languages.

I've tried to call suspenders "braces" like my dad taught me, but I've always had to tell people that I'm talking about my suspenders. I'm surprised to learn others in the U.S. are using the term.

Ah, Dahlink, when Dame Judith announces on "As Time Goes By" that "Rocky's in hospital!" I want to sound just like her!

Darn it, once again I have accidentally posted (the 2007 data on "a coffee") as Anonymous. I blame the new Sun paywall. (Signed, Jan Freeman)

Interesting, Eve. In MY fantasies I look and sound like Helen Mirren. She might not be a Dame, but someone gave her a "best body" title (beating out J. Lo), so that makes her a Great Dame in my book!

I gave up on Best Body years ago!

Well, I did say it was a fantasy, Eve!

I must stand corrected. Helen Mirren is indeed officially a Dame these days. Sorry, Dame Helen!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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