All I Needed to Know About Adjectives I Learned at Starbucks

Language is an example of a moving target par excellence. Only today, I received a tweet that outlined a number of reasons why you should instantly wife your girlfriend. Wife her, I thought? Since when did wife switch teams and become a verb? Well, truth be told, it turns out that it became a verb in 1387, as evidenced by a quote from that popular 14th century pot-boiler Prolicionycion wrtten by Ranulf Higden:

Þey..kepeþ besiliche here children, and suffreth hem nouȝt to wyfe wiþ ynne foure and twenty ȝere.

But for reasons unknown – as is often the case in etymology – the use of wife as a verb disappeared sometime during the early 18th century, leaving only the noun usage in common use [1]. After a brief dalliance with verbiness, the word settled back into its original home.

Let’s now go back to just last week during the 2014 Closing the Gap conference in Minneapolis. After standing in line for almost 15 minutes to get a Starbucks latte from the hotel’s coffee bar, I asked for a “tall skinny” and was then quizzed with, “Is that the short tall?”

A “short tall?” Dear Lord, how much more torture do we want to subject the English language to? Prescriptivists everywhere would be wailing in anguish and putting red pens to paper – or maybe tweeting their disgust in 140 characters or less!

However, it’s pretty clear what’s happening here. Just like wife in the 14th century, the word tall is getting bored with being a simple adjective and deciding that being a rambunctious noun is much better; “Noun Envy” as the psychoanalinguists might say [2].

Starbucks, for purposes of marketing and not linguistics, decided to ignore the more semantically accurate method of labeling coffee sizes by “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “freakin’ huge,” in favor of “tall,” “grande,” “venti” and “trenta.” But they created an element of cognitive dissonance in consumers’ minds by linking a word like tall, which is semantically typically opposed to short, with the word small, which is more likely to be balanced against large. So using a word like tall to describe something that is cognitively small just doesn’t jibe.

What our consciously unaware but unconsciously linguistic barista has done here is to overcome that dissonance by treating the word tall as a noun and using short as an attributive adjective. Pretty damn cool, eh? [3] I can easily imagine that at some point, various baristas [4] have uttered not only “Is that the small tall?” but also “Do you mean a medium grande?” or “Is that a large venti?”

So while I’m hanging out here with you all in our virtual Starbucks, something else you might be curious about is the whole “How do I order my coffee?” issue. Does one ask for “a skinny grande cappuccino” or “a grande skinny cappuccino?” And when you start adding caramel or extra shots, where on earth do  you hang them?

Well, having castigated my good friends at Starbucks in relation to their idiosyncratic naming of drink sizes, I’ll offer them points for actually providing a “syntax” for budding baristas in order to make ordering easier. In a 2003 manual distributed to employees, the following generic ordering structure was recommended:

1. CUP: That’s hot, cold, iced, or “for here.”
2. SHOT and SIZE: No stipulation for which should be first.
3. SYRUP: For your caramel, raspberry, cinnamon etc.
4. MILK: Skimmed, 2%, soy, or whatever.
5. DRINK: Coffee, tea, mocha, or any other name.

My personal common order is for a “grande, non-fat latte,” which fits the rules of 2>4>5. During summer, I might order an “iced, grande, non-fat latte,” which again conforms with 1>2>4>5. My wife has a “grande non-fat, caramel macchiato” that follows the rules, and sometimes goes for the “iced, grande non-fat caramel macchiato,” which illustrates the full-blown 1>2>3>4>5 ordering.

Budding researchers [5] might want to spend an afternoon at their local Starbies armed with a pen and a notebook, jotting down as many orders as they can overhear – what researchers like to call “taking a sample.” After an hour of sampling both orders and coffee, they should be able to do some analysis to see how many people actually conform to the ordering paradigm. Remember, this is what research is all about; setting up a hypothesis about how we think folks will order coffee, and then testing it against observations of how they really order it!

Outside the world of Starbucks, adjective ordering in English also has some rules. One of the most common ordering paradigms is as follows:

Order of adjectives

If we compare this with the Starbucks recommendations, we can see that the sequence CUP-SHOT/SIZE-SYRUP-MILK-DRINK corresponds to the generic OPINION-SIZE-MATERIAL-QUALIFIER-NOUN. So they’re pretty much on the syntactic ball here!

Doubtless our hundreds of “proxy Dudes” collecting real data at coffee bars across the world will find exceptions to the ordering rules, but language performance has always been variable. On the other hand, we’re unlikely to hear “macchiato iced grande caramel” or “caramel latte venti soy.”

Or are we?

[1] I suppose as a proponent of using evidence and data to support propositions, I did take a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American and found no instances of wife as a verb in the 450 million word sample. Same for the British National Corpus (100 million word sample) and the Canadian Strathy Corpus (50 million words). Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I think I’m pretty confident in asserting that using wife as a verb is extremely rare and unlikely.

[2] Don’t rush out to your dictionary – even if YOUR dictionary is the Urban Dictionary – to find the word psychoanalinguist. It doesn’t exist. It’s only a “real word” in the sense that (a) I have just used it and (b) it can be understood within the context of this article.

[3] I suppose I need to appreciate that not everyone gets as excited about language change as I do. But this type of living example of how new meanings come about helps us all understand how important it is to be aware of the simple fact that languages are not, and never have been, static. I’m not suggesting that we allow some form of lexical anarchy where you can simply stick any old word anywhere but knowing that words can, and do, change meaning and category can, I believe, make us more aware clinicians.

[4] The word barista is, as you might know, Italian, so you might be tempted to point out to me that I should really be using the word baristi to mark the plural. However, the word baristas is perfectly acceptable because it’s an example of a word that’s been Anglicized i.e. taken into the English language, and the normal rule for making a plural word is simply to add an “s.” Hence baristas. I think I’ve talked about this before in relation to octopuses as being a wonderful plural, with octopi being fake Latin (octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, and if you wanted a Greek plural, it would really be octopodes!)

[5] It strikes me that a generous supervisor might be totally OK with letting a grad student work on a study such as, “Syntactic adjectival variability in coffee ordering.” And should that student be the recipient of a grant from Starbucks itself, it seems a bit of a no-brainer, don’t yah think?


8 responses to “All I Needed to Know About Adjectives I Learned at Starbucks

  1. It appears that your wife is breaking the 3>4 order and ought to be properly chastised, or at least conveniently excluded as an “outlier” in future studies.

    • One thing I have noticed is that there is definitely some variability not just amongst customers but Starbucks’ baristas. Not infrequently when I place an order, the barista repeats it to me but with words switched. So if I order a “decaff not-fat latte” I may hear a “not-fat decaff latte” spoken back to me. I suppose I could be churlish and say, “No, a decaff non-fat latte not a non-fat decaff latte,” but I love the folks at my local Starbies to be like that. This, of course, is all grist to the mill of saying that someone really does need to get a research grant to study this!

  2. Now, I truly understand what is linguistically going on when I order at sbucks….the funny thing is I got this while standing on line at sbucks…it caught my eye just as in was asked what I wanted…to which I responded
    “A medium coffee.” I think i broke all the rules.

    • Some of us more “senior” coffee drinkers can actually remember when buying a cup of coffee required a very small lexical set: small, medium, large, sugar, milk (not even cream). Now you almost need a small dictionary in order to make a choice. Even the humble truck stop or backwoods gas station now typically offers more than a single pot of three-hour old black “something” that you pour into a styrofoam cup.

  3. I’m a little late to leave a comment here, but I happened to read this just now. As a former Starbucks barista, I wanted to clarify what that barista might’ve meant with “short tall”. “Short” happens to be the smallest cup size at Starbucks, but it is not on the menu. This is to partly dissuade customers from ordering it (since it is the least profitable size). Cup size can also refer to volume of liquid separately. For example, “tall coffee in a grande cup” could be a common order in that vein. “Short tall” could be an abbreviated version of “short latte in a tall cup”. Typically, baristas would confirm the volume to cup size difference with the customer, especially when “short” is brought up. Now you can add another dimension to your Starbucks drink order 🙂

    • Thanks for that insight into the “short/tall” world of Starbucks! And yes, now there’s another meaning of “short” and “tall” we need to take into account. What this also illustrates is how words do, in fact, take on a life of their own once they’re released into the world, and that also applies to words for which we think we know the meaning, but which then go on to adopt new meanings previously unknown.

  4. Pingback: Scribble, Scribble, Scribble | The Speech Dudes

  5. Pingback: Conversation Boulevard: Online English courses for professionals | 4 Tips for Ordering an American Coffee

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