Coffee etymology: where does the word “coffee” come from?

Our story begins around 1000 BC. Along the eastern coasts of Red Sea, people used to drink a tonic and awakening infusion, obtained from Coffea‘s green fruits. This “trend” first spread within the Arabian Peninsula and then throughout the Middle East, reaching Damascus, where in the fifteenth century they began to toast the coffee beans.

Coffee etymology, history and definition

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city of Mokhā (al-Mukhā in Arabic), the main port of Yemen and the entire Red Sea, housed the most important coffee market in the world. Coffee sacks reached the main cities of the Middle East by sea or on the caravan routes. Even in the following centuries, when coffee was exported and began to be intensively cultivated in other areas of the world, the Mokhā beans continued to be famous for their quality and intense chocolate aroma. This is where the name mocha, fine quality coffee with small, round grains, was born.

What about coffee etymology and history of coffee? What does coffee mean?

The origin of the word coffee is linked to two hypotheses: the geographical area in which the Coffea was discovered for food purposes and the term by which an ancient Arab drink was called.

The Kaffa highlands

Woman collects coffee in a plantation in Hosaena, Kaffa Highland, Ethiopia – Photo by Georgina Smith / CIAT

According to historians, the coffee plant arrived in Arabia with the Ethiopian invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is, in fact, in the mountainous areas of East Africa that the Coffea Arabica was born and grows spontaneously, although until the nineteenth century Mokhā was considered the “homeland” of coffee.

It is believed that the word coffee derives from Kaffa (also Caffa or Kafa), the south-western region of Ethiopia in which the plant thrived. A small Abyssinian kingdom on the border with South Sudan, where the Omo, Gojeb, Ghibie, Gibe and Akobo rivers “influence” the plateau which culminates at 3,686 metres high with the summit of Mount Holla and the savannah and splashes of tropical forests all around. The mix of temperate climate and volcanic soils has promoted the cultivation of corn, ginger, cotton and coffee.

The local tribes gathered coffee cherries, dried them, roasted them and added butter and salt to prepare aromatic breads to be eaten while on the move, a custom still alive today in the indigenous population.

Once upon a time, there was qahwa

An Arabian Bedouin from a typical beehive village in Aleppo, Syria, sips the traditional bitter murra coffee – 1930 – from Wikipedia

The theory that says coffee meaning comes from Caffa has been challenged by those who attribute the origin of the name to an ancient Arab drink.

The popularity of coffee in the Islamic world benefited from two factors: the Koran’s ban on alcohol and the belief that caffeine made warriors braver and more aggressive. The word qahwa (قهوة), which according to lexicography originally assumed meanings such as “invigorating”, “power”, “energy”, “lack of hunger”, identified a sort of red coloured liqueur wine, with an exciting and stimulating power, produced with the juice of a few seeds.

Over time, the use of the term qahwa has become progressively more restricted to indicate the drink obtained from Coffea beans only. Under the Ottoman influence, the word was translated into Turkish as kahve. It first entered the Dutch language as koffie and, in the 16th century, in the English language as coffee.

Have you ever tried to to find the meaning of coffee? The etymology and history of coffee have travelled arm in arm for more than 600 years, along a path surrounded by assumptions, theories and interpretations, all of which have been variously disputed. All that remains then is to give coffee the meaning that we most prefer!

Cover image by Bruno Befreetv – Personal work, CC BY-SA 3.0 – commons.wikimedia.org

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