Is The NYT’s Coffee Code A Modern Day Grunge Speak?

 
By 14 February 2013
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A great, super fun feature came out last weekend in the New York Times, a glossary on how “independent coffee bars have developed private vocabularies to describe the intricate beverages they brew and the idiosyncrasies of those who order them.” The article’s author, Ben Schott, consulted an impressive subsection of fine cafes across the United States, and the end result is a kind of snapshot in time of who’s saying what from behind the bar in this day and age.

But were some of his interview subjects just goofing?

lexiconThe coffee bar code article reminds us a lot – like a lot – of the infamous “Grunge Speak” hoax that appeared in a New York Times article on Seattle grunge subculture back in 1992. Here’s the original NYT article that we are way too young to remember. We’re familiar with the hoax first from its documentation in the gold standard grunge documentary film “Hype”, as well as from the various retrospectives that ran last year on its 20th anniversary (including this feature from Gothamist). The two articles are pretty similar when you think about it: both try to capture the lingo of a subculture; both rely on primary sources in that subculture as linguistic authorities; and both were published by The Paper of Record. The big difference we see is that Mr. Schott consulted a wide variety of sources, whereas the author of “Grunge Speak” relied on only one – a clever receptionist at Sub Pop Records named Megan Jasper.

Some of the lingo reported by Mr. Schott is definitely authentic – we know they call a 6oz Americano a “little buddy” at Sterling, for example, and the Gibraltar is now commonly accepted parlance at Blue Bottle and beyond (the Times’ own Oliver Strand reported on it back in 2010). But Megan Jasper didn’t make up the entirety of “Grunge Speak” out of whole cloth; people really did say “rock on” to mean goodbye, and some still do.

There were kernels of truth in the Grunge Speak hoax, but are there kernels of hoax in Java Jive’s truth? Let’s take a look by comparing Grunge Speak terms from 1992 to Coffee Shop Code from 2013:

cob-nobbler

These all sound pretty plausible to us.

tom-tom

These sound less plausible, but maybe?

swingin'

We are dubious about the common usage of these terms.

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While funny, this lingo does not match its source material. Seattle Grunge types did not stay home on Friday night; the fancy coffee bar quoted by Mr. Schott does not carry sugar-free vanilla syrup.

So maybe the Java Jive feature is like 1/3rds hoax? We think some folks at the excellent coffee bars consulted by Mr. Schott might have been gently pulling his leg…

 
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