Macchiato Cowboy: Starbucks & the Gourmet Movement

Starbucks’ Tribute to Itself

This morning, hat in hand, a cowboy ordered a drink: “Two-percent espresso macchiato, ma’am.” The honorific belonged wholly to the cowboy, but the precious phrasing came right out of Starbucks’ own system of signification, according to which the default milk is whole and the default macchiato includes syrups and flavorings and, as often as not, whipped cream.

To order what you might call—or might once have called—a “real” or a “proper” macchiato, Starbucks requires cowboys and the rest of us to throw “espresso” into service as a qualifier. An espresso macchiato, we are told, is a “European-style beverage” whose “just enough” may satisfy us—”sometimes.” (After all, any American who spurns sweet, sweet caloric density must be doing so only as an exception.)

This morning, to recap, I heard a cowboy who had some familiarity with the language of a coffee-shop chain’s menu ordering a European-style beverage using once-foreign words with no shame. Forty years after the opening of the first Starbucks, I should not have been surprised, and perhaps it wasn’t surprise that I felt, but the shock of recollection, of the past intruding on the present.

Notwithstanding our brief, post-traumatic regression in the “Freedom Fries” years, we have grown more accepting of foreign foods. I was raised vegetarian, and my childhood memories are pock-marked with incidents of derision over tofu, over aloo palak, over falafel. I grant you that we warm to European influence more readily than to Asian or Indian or Middle-Eastern, but still: To hear this macchiato cowboy place his order is my vindication. It is the moment when my inner Carrie burns down the whole fucking gymnasium.

This morning, on hearing the macchiato cowboy speak, I wondered whether Starbucks is not merely one beneficiary of this movement (as David Kamp might have it), but is rather the social lubricant that made possible its most recent incarnation.

Strange words make us feel strange, at least until some force comes along and rubs our bellies until our nerves subside. Our perception of French culinary superiority intimidated us until Julia Child made words like bourguignonne sound as familiar as they do now. Likewise for Martin Yan and wok, and James Beard and barbecue, perhaps.

In this context, it seems possible that had we not ordered espressi and cappucini and macchiati at the Starbucks counter in the very early 1990s, would we not have been prepared, a few years later, to watch a man swish his ponytail — not judging; I’ve had one, too — and tell us how to procure fennel pollen, which Batali introduced to his viewers in 1995 or 1996. Without being forced to learn the language of ventis and talls and grandes, which Starbucks has smartly memorialized in recent months (as in the photo above), I cannot imagine us supporting the rise of arugula—also featured in Molto Mario‘s first few episodes—let alone those of chipotle, kimchi, rooibos, and hummus.

It seems possible, in other words, that those of us who prefer things as they have become owe Starbucks gratitude for more than just the spread of decent coffee (if not so much their own), that we owe them for their influence on the boundaries of our everyday language, for insidiously softening American masculinity just enough to let gourmet food in the door.


After reviewing the comments on my post about the opposite of the word dense, I began to think more about the possibility of a word like weight to describe the spectrum dense <=> rare. (Weight, of course, describes heavy <=> light.)

It occurred to me that dense is probably a latinate word while weight should come from the German, and a bit of research confirmed this hypothesis. Weight comes from the German Gewicht (adj.: wicht) and dense from the Latin—say it with me—densus, meaning not only dense but also close, crowded, and frequent (or so I hear).

Looking up density in German to find an analogue to Gewichte led me to Dichte, with the adjective form dicht. The parallel to the German words concerning weight is quite close, though I should say I don’t know the language well enough to deal with that Ge- prefix.

At any rate, the symmetry between wicht and dicht makes think that a word looking something like deight ought to be in place to describe the spectrum along which things can be relatively more dense or more rare. I think I’ll use it from now on, as clumsy as it sounds.

Incidentally, in a classic case of the English language’s notorious hodge-podgery, although light comes from German as you might expect, heavy arrives in our language by way of Old Norse.

The Interrolimb?: A New Punctuation Mark

I see a new combination of punctuation emerging, and demanding formal recognition. Consider an example in which the writer of an email, say, asks the recipient about possible meeting times. Some options for punctuation:

  1. Can we meet at any of these times: 12:30, 3:00, 4:30.
  2. Can we meet at any of these times? 12:30, 3:00, 4:30.
  3. Can we meet at any of these times: 12:30, 3:00, 4:30?
  4. Can we meet at any of these times?: 12:30, 3:00, 4:30.

Options 1 and 2 won’t work, as each one requires breaking grammatical form. In option 1, the writer abandons the requisite question mark; in option 2, no colon introduces the list of times, which thus becomes an incomplete sentence. Option 3 is more plausible, but the deferred question mark makes the opening interrogative clause “feel” wrong until one arrives at the end of the sentence.

Option 4, which I use often and hope will spread, accomplishes the goal of the sentence while keeping both question mark and colon in close proximity to the clauses to which they’re meant to apply.

I propose combining the two characters, ? and :, and naming the new mark the “interrolimb.”

The word follows the pattern established by the interrobang (a single character that can be used in place of !? or ?!), with a nod to the Greek roots of the word “colon”—which meant “limb” and so was also used in rhetoric to refer to clauses within sentences (just as we sometimes use “limb” to do).

As a first stab—and I’m no typographer—what do you think of these, set in Times?:

interrolimb 1Interrolimbs

(Thanks to Christian Schwartz for inspiring the second version.)

The Opposite of Dense

Pick up that little section of lead pipe; feel it in your hand. It’s heavier than you might’ve thought, maybe? It’s dense, in other words, right? Right.

Now, pick up that chunk of pumice, about the same size. What do you call that, in comparison to the pipe? Light? True, it is lighter than the pipe, but it could be just as heavy, if only it were bigger. Airy? Maybe, but even in a vacuum it would feel like it had the same weight, most likely. Sparse? No: It’s not a forest in your hand, after all.

The question is, when we’re talking about material objects, what’s the opposite of dense?

The answer, at the moment, is less dense, unsatisfactory because of our habit of using paired descriptions for physical properties (heavy/light, soft/hard, wet/dry, and so on). Once upon a time, though, dense had an opposite. Until the mid-19th century, the word was rare.

In fact, the earliest meaning of rare in English was precisely this one. The OED notes the word’s meaning as “[o]pposed to dense,” and provides the following example (from around 1420), among others:

The londis fatte, or lene, or thicke, or rare.

I don’t know what a londis is, and I’m intrigued by thicke as a stand-in for dense (as in a thicket, perhaps). But mostly, I’m thrilled to find rare used in this way.

One can imagine how, in the less dense Britain of the 15th century, a word like rare could move from describing a single object (as in, for example, “this rare piece of pumice”) to describing a collective object (“this rare forest”) to describing the likelihood of encountering individual objects while wandering through the realm (“the rare African swallow”).

Still, I propose we resuscitate rare‘s original meaning. I’ve looked for such a word many times, and so have others. To inspire you, I close with more examples from the OED:

Cvcumber in this mone is sowen rare. [C. 1420]

The Assemblie was so rare that they were not exceeding the number of nineteen Commissioners. [1610]

A projectile would travel a far greater distance through a rare medium like air, than through a dense medium like water. [1862]

Who wouldn’t want a word that can as readily describe cvcumbers as Commissioners, projectiles as londises? The chance to improve our language by looking to antiquated usage is (forgive me) a rare one.

Intuitive Interfaces? No Such Thing

The way interface designers use the word “intuitive” has never set well with me. It’s a good way to get people to know why an interface works well, but it’s inaccurate. Over on Johnny Holland, Vicky Tenacki writes:

Digital devices can never be inherently ‘intuitive’, as the fact that they deal in abstraction automatically means that actions must be arbitrary. (An aside: for those who argue that much of gestural and time based interactions are intuitive, remember that this assumes a Western way of looking at space and time. Anthropologists would tell you that there are other ways.) In other words, interfaces aren’t ‘intuitive’, they’re ‘intuited’: before that, there’s nothing ‘intuitive’ about them at all.

Agreed. I don’t think we should stop using the word, but it’s worth pausing once in a while to recognize that the most “intuitive” interfaces only seem so because they adhere to (or successfully predict) a set of conventions and expectations and behaviors.

When you get as close to cognitive psychology as interface designers should, “intuition” takes on a technical meaning: immediate knowledge that comes from someplace besides conscious reasoning, however much the process might seem conscious to the subject. (That conscious / unconscious contradiction helps explain, among other things, the most effective American politics of the last half-century and the human compulsion to believe in the supernatural.)

When we call an interface “intuitive,” though, we really mean that it’s easy to figure out. That’s a very different claim about the brains and bodies we’re discussing.