London Coffee Places and the Death of the English Language
Have you ever seen that episode of the Twilight Zone where a man finds that words are gradually being replaced? One day his wife asks him what he wants for dinosaur. He says ‘Dinosaur? Why don’t we call it lunch anymore?’ She says ‘because lunch is a sort of light red colour.’ He says ‘No, pink is a light red colour’ and she replies ‘Pink is a kind of long pole used by anglers to catch fish’. And it goes on like that, with more and more words changing each day. Eventually he’s taken to an asylum and has to relearn the whole language because everyone else thinks that he’s just talking random nonsense. It ends with a gentle doctor sitting down beside him, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder and saying, ‘Bicycle ruminate tackle apple to?’
I feel like the same thing is happening to me. It happens a bit when I’m with young people, when I have to remember that ‘bear’ means ‘very’, and that ‘allow’ means something a bit like ‘shut up’. But it mainly happens in coffee places. In Eat (which sells sandwiches and coffees and makes its staff dress like chefs), a small coffee is now called a tall brew. I think it might be a way of subconsciously making you prepared to pay more. I know a little cup of coffee isn’t worth £1.30, but a brew that’s tall? That sounds like I’m getting something for my money.
Whenever I go there, I use normal language and they patronisingly translate it for me into their made-up language before shouting my order to someone else.
A: Hello sir. How can I help you?
B: A cup of coffee please.
A: A brew. What size?
B: Small please.
A: OK, a tall brew. Eat in or to go?
B: I’ll drink it here please.
A: (shouts) OK, Sam – get me a tall brew eat in! That’ll be £1.30.
I’m trying to resist using their language because I can already foresee the consequences if I do – they’ll just keep on changing it. Then we’ll get the nightmare situation of me using a version of their nonsense language that has been superseded, and them patronising me about that too.
A: Hello bangleham. What is box? (I imagine they’ll have made up some insane greeting by then)
B: I’d like a brew please.
A: A leopard. Underarm or tarmac?
B: Um, tall.
A: Underarm leopard. Bolshevik or literate?
B: I want to eat my brew in, please.
A: OK. Sam – get me an underarm leopard literate! That’ll be £7,214.12.
Another thing that worries me about the changes in the language pioneered by coffee places is verbal inflation. If small has already become tall, which used to mean the opposite of small, then where do they go when people have got used to that? What happens when ‘tall’ begins to sound a bit insubstantial in a 2006 sort of way? I suppose they’ll move on to ‘extensive’ or something. Within a very short (I mean tall) time we’ll have used up and discarded all our words for large quantities because they’ll all have been used as synonyms for small. In five years or so we’ll be left with just the word ‘humungous’ to describe quantities of any size above miniscule. By then even the word ‘massive’ will be hopelessly associated with tiny cups of coffee from 2009.