Coffee Talk: Regional Idioms to Describe Coffee

Chuck wagon of the Ole Southwest, plenty of meat, potatoes, frijoles and coffee about to be consumed

You might be aware that we at Wordnik love our coffee. In a classic post we explore caffeinated language from around the world, from the Italian espresso to the French café au lait to the Australian flat white.

Today we’re delving into how we talk about coffee in the U.S., and to help us are the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English, also known as DARE. In case you didn’t know, DARE is a fantastic resource of language specific to states and other regions. For instance, what you call a frying pan might be called a skillet elsewhere. What you call pancakes might be flapjacks or griddle cakes in other parts of the country.

But we’re here to talk about joe. Pour yourself a mug and drink in these regional terms.

Strong enough to walk

Why call a bold cup of java strong when you can call it blackjack? Blackjack is a term used in Wisconsin and in “lumberjack lingo” in New England and the Great Lakes. Another lumberjack term for strong coffee is Norwegian or Norski in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, which have long histories of Norwegian settlers. Norwegian coffee also refers to coffee with an egg in it.

Shanty coffee seems to have originated in the New York area and is so-called as it was made by fisherman who lived in shanties, or little cabins or huts. Cowboy coffee is named for, you guessed it, the cowboys who boiled it. Six-shooter coffee is a cowboy term that comes from the idea, says DARE, that “it’s thick enough to float a pistol or because there’s six tablespoons for a four-cup pot.”

Strong enough to walk could refer to any strong-flavored food or drink but especially coffee, and centers in the South and Midland regions of the U.S.

Weak as water

Descriptions for weak coffee percolate across the U.S. as well. In Texas you might hear it called duck coffee, perhaps with the idea of a liquid a duck would swim in, i.e., water. In Pennsylvania it might cambric coffee, after the fine, thin fabric. In scattered regions, it might be dishwashy or dishwater.

In the Southwest, weak coffee might be derided as black water; as coffee-water in Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi; and as pond water in the South and South Midland. Also in the South and South Midland is branch water, from the original meaning of the term, water from a stream rather than a well, perhaps due to the light brown color often associated with streams.

In the Inland South and Appalachians there’s stump water, originally rainwater collected from tree stumps and used in folk magic and home remedies for ailments such as skin conditions. Perhaps by extension, stump water also means anything weak, often coffee. In other regions, the term water bewitched is used to describe highly diluted coffee or tea, often in the phrase water bewitched and coffee (or tea) begrudged.

Slumgullion, referring to a weak or disgusting beverage, was perhaps first used primarily in the western United States but now can be found in other regions as well. In his 1915 book, Travels in Alaska, John Muir describes a cup of coffee as “muddy” and “semi-liquid…which the California miners call ‘slickens’ or ‘slumgullion.'”

How do you take your coffee?

If you take your coffee black, you could call it black, or you could call it naked like they do in Mississippi and Texas, or stark naked like in Massachusetts. Or you could make like those in the Middle Atlantic, Central Atlantic, and Ohio Valley regions and call it barefooted.

Conversely, coffee with milk or cream would have its socks on, as they might say in parts of the south, or be seasoned, as they say in Pennsylvania and Kansas. Coffee and might refer to coffee and a donut or roll, or coffee with milk or cream. (Cider-and, by the way, is cider with alcohol or other ingredients, says the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Boston coffee is half cream, half coffee (perhaps named after the Boston cream pie?) in Louisiana, Texas, Illinois — but not in Boston.

What exactly do you mean by ‘regular’?

A regular coffee is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

In Boston and Massachusetts, a regular coffee will get you one with cream or milk. In Rhode Island, it’s cream or milk and sugar. In Chicago it’s black while in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Virginia, regular is caffeinated rather than decaf. Finally, in New York, a regular coffee has milk or cream, and possibly sugar (or two sugars, as Gothamist insists).

Coffee, figuratively

We’ve discussed idioms about a literal cup of coffee, but how about idioms with the word coffee? Coffee coat is another name for a housecoat used in Wisconsin. Grinding coffee is a way of jumping rope in Tennessee and perhaps elsewhere: one jumper stays in place while another jumps around her, like the wheels of an old-fashioned coffee grinder.

Coffee cooler is a military term for an idler or shirker, perhaps with the idea of an untouched hot beverage cooling off, while a coffee-strainer is nickname for a bushy mustache.

Be prepared if someone invites you to a coffee-drink in Louisiana: they’re talking about a wake. If someone in the South Midland or Texas says you don’t know split beans from coffee — in other words, you’re stupid or ignorant — you might consider giving them a drink of black coffee, or a severe reprimand, as they say in Pennsylvania.

How do you talk about your coffee?

Word Buzz Wednesday: Cats Wednesday, sandwich class, Web brutalism

J. & P. Coats Best Six Cord, 200 yds, 50. [front]

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for some of the most interesting words of the week. The latest: not a good day for cats; some Hong Kong lingo; brutally hip web design.

Cats Wednesday

“In those crueler times, hurling cats from a great height on what came to be known as ‘Cats Wednesday’ was apparently seen in Ypres as both a practical solution and a source of gruesome entertainment — the more so because popular superstitions linked cats to witchcraft and the devil.”

Patrick J. Lyons, “The Wrong Day to Be a Cat in Belgium,” The New York Times, May 10, 2016

If you were a cat in the Middle Ages, you’d probably want to stay away from Ypres, suggests The New York Times, at least on Wednesdays. A center for clothmaking, the town’s warehouses of wool and cloth drew mice and rats. To combat this, merchants brought in cats, which promptly over-multiplied, and to combat the over-population, the cats were (horribly) thrown from the top of a bell tower on a regular basis.

Cats Wednesday no longer exists of course, but every three years, Ypres holds the Kattenstoet, or Cat Parade, a cat-themed cultural festival. (The next one is May 13, 2018. Mark your calendars!)

sandwich class

“The multi-part study polled 688 people by phone or internet from the ‘sandwich class’ between May and December last year, asking them how they felt about their ability to handle stress.”

Ernest Kao, “Headaches, trembling hands, poor sleep, feeling worthless: Hong Kong’s middle-class mental health crisis,” South China Morning Post, May 2, 2016

Sandwich class is one of more than 30 East Asian terms that the Oxford English Dictionary has added to its corpus. Coming from Hong Kong English, sandwich class refers to the middle class, or the “squeezed middle class,” those who earn too much money to live in public housing yet can’t afford to buy private homes.

soap opera effect

“We go to watch a high-fidelity, high-frame-rate movie, think it looks eerily like a local television news show from our childhood, and discover that this is a well-noted phenomenon, called the ‘soap-opera effect.’”

Adam Gopnik, “Feel Me,” The New Yorker, May 16, 2016

Remember how The Hobbit looked so weird? That’s because of something called high frame rate, in the case of Peter Jackson’s film, 48 frames per second instead of the more usual 24 FPS, a technique that’s supposed to make for “very smooth slow-motion scenes,” sharper individual frames, and action scenes that are “smoother and more lifelike.”

However, shooting at a high frame rate might also result in the soap opera effect, a phenomenon in which a TV show or movie looks overly smooth and weirdly like a daytime soap opera. In case you were wondering why daytime soaps look the way they do, it’s basically because the actors are backlit and the shows were recorded on videotape.

Soap opera effect has a psychological meaning as well: when beliefs about characters’ motives color memory recall about those characters.


“Often they refer to themselves as part of ‘the Unger family,’ or sometimes just as ‘Ungers.’ More than one of them told me, ‘I’m an Unger.’ They realize they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Jason Fagone, “Meet the Ungers,” The Huffington Post, May 13, 2016

The Ungers are former prisoners with life sentences who have been given parole due to a legal loophole discovered by another “lifer,” Merle Unger, Jr. Unger, who had escaped from prison on multiple occasions, found that a colonial-era line of instruction to the jury — “it is your responsibility to determine for yourselves what the law is” — violated the constitutional rights of prisoners convicted before that instruction was removed in 1980.

Web brutalism

“The name of this school, if you could call it that, is ‘Web brutalism’ — and there’s no question that much of the recent interest stems from the work of Pascal Deville.”

Katherine Arcement, “The hottest trend in Web design is making intentionally ugly, difficult sites,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2016

The ugly Christmas sweater of web design, Web brutalism is deliberately unsightly, purposefully unusable, and unbearably hip. According to The Washington Post, it eschews “the templated, user-friendly interfaces that have long been the industry’s best practice,” and instead are “built on imperfect, hand-coded HTML and take their design cues from ’90s graphics.” Some examples include Drudge Report, Adult Swim, and Bloomberg features.

Word Buzz Wednesday: Asian pivot, party raiding, Shermanesque

General William Tecumseh Sherman Monument

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for some of the most interesting words of the week. The latest: not the latest dance craze in the East; not to be confused with “panty raiding”; not unclear in politics.

Asian pivot

“Mr. Obama will make the visit during a week-long trip to Vietnam and Japan at the end of May. The trip is meant to highlight the administration’s commitment to what’s known as the Asian pivot.”

Rebecca Shabad, “Obama to make historic trip to Hiroshima,” CBS News, May 10, 2016

The Asian pivot, also known as the Pivot to Asia, is “one of the Obama Administration’s central foreign policy initiatives,” namely “a strategic ‘re-balancing’ of U.S. interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia.”

While Obama will “make an historic visit to Hiroshima” at the end of May, says CBS News, “he will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II.”

chewable pill

“But there are different types, and the likes of Minow tend to prefer only what’s known as a ‘chewable pill’ — namely one that is redeemed by a shareholder vote to assure management doesn’t use it simply to protect itself from buyers who might well do better for shareholder.”

James Warren, “Tribune Publishing tries to foil Gannett with ‘poison pill,’” Poynter, May 9, 2016

Does it come in orange flavor? A chewable pill is a modified version of the poison pill, which was created by attorney Martin Lipton in the 1980s. The poison pill is a technique used by companies to thwart hostile takeovers by making “the target’s stock prohibitively expensive or otherwise unattractive to an unwanted acquirer.”

A chewable pill — that is, one that’s easier to swallow — is modified to “appease investors by permitting them to ask for a special shareholder vote to determine whether or not a specific bid can be exempt from triggering the pill.”

party raiding

“He’s also worried that allowing voters to cross party lines could lead to what’s called ‘party raiding,’ where ‘voters not aligned with a particular party or its philosophy and goals will vote for the weaker or weakest candidate in the party’s primary, hoping to prevail in the general election.’”

Julia Marsh, “NY primary results stand, but judge questions closed system,” The New York Post, May 2, 2016

Party raiding (not to be confused with “panty raiding,” so says Wikipedia) “can happen in one of two ways,” according to Bloomberg: those outside the “party can vote for the candidate they find least objectionable,” or “they can vote for the candidate they believe will make the weakest general election opponent.”

Closed primary elections, in which people can only vote in whatever party they’re registered for, are supposed to prevent party raiding. However, some registration processes can be so “onerous” that even a candidate’s children might be prevented from voting.

Shermanesque statement

“Given an invitation to end the speculation by issuing a Shermanesque denial, [Gingrich] replies: ‘Nobody from Georgia issues Shermanesque statements. It goes against the state constitution.’)”

Joshua Green, “Donald Trump Bets the White House on His One-Man Show,” Bloomberg, May 5, 2016

In a field ruled by obfuscation, it’s not surprising that in politics a term exists to distinguish a statement that’s clear and unambiguous. House Speaker Paul Ryan issued such a statement when asked if he’d save the GOP by running for office: “Let me be clear. I do not want, nor will I accept, the nomination for our party.”

The Shermanesque statement is named for Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman who, after he retired from the military, was often asked to run for president, to which he replied, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”


“A cicada is capable of causing such a racket due to vibrations of its ‘tymbals,’ or sound production organ composed of corrugated exoskeleton.”

Sarah Emerson, “Cicada Calls Are Literally Deafening,” Motherboard, May 3, 2016

The buggy tymbal is a variant of the musical timbal, another name for the kettledrum. The word comes from the French timbale, which ultimately comes from the Arabic aṭ-ṭabl, “the drum.”

Word Buzz Wednesday: Becky, Dunbar layers, woonerf

London, UK (Camden)

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for some of the most interesting words of the week. The latest: she of the good hair; layers of friends; a living street.


“‘He better call Becky with the good hair.’ And with those eight words, Beyoncé launched a firestorm Saturday. Who is Becky?”

Cara Kelly, “What does Becky mean? Here’s the history behind Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ lyric that sparked a firestorm,” USA Today, April 27, 2016

The term Becky refers to a usually white woman woman who engages in certain sex acts, as well as the sex act itself. USA Today takes a creative, if speculative, look back Becky’s cultural references, from Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, to Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to the titular Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel. Becky referring to a sex act was most likely originated by rapper Plies in his 2010 song “Becky.”

Dunbar layers

“There are some differences between introverts and extroverts, but they have the same number of what’s called the ‘Dunbar layers.’”

Mariella Moon, “Phone call study concludes we can only have five best friends,” Engadget, May 1, 2016

Dunbar layers are named for British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who posited that we can only have at maximum 150 friends, whether online or IRL, and that those friends are divided by layers, five in the closest layer, 10 in the next, 35 in the next, and 100 in the last.


“The correct answer – Kriol – is not a traditional Indigenous language, but refers to the creole language spoken across swathes of northern Australia.”

Greg Dickson, “Explainer: the largest language spoken exclusively in Australian Kriol,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 2, 2016

The term Kriol is a variant of the English creole. While many might associate creole with Louisiana, it’s actually a general term referring to any language “born out of abrupt and often brutal colonisation processes,” says the Sydney Morning Herald, and is often based on the colonizers’ dominant language, also known as the lexifier. Australian Kriol has an estimated 20,000 speakers.


“But a new theory of public health might yet hold the answer. Known as syndemics, it may also be the one thing that can rescue Austin and its people.”

Jessica Wapner, “How Did A Small Midwest Town End Up With America’s Worst HIV Problem?” Digg, May 3, 2016

Coined by medical anthropologist Merrill Singer, the term syndemic is a blend of synergy and epidemic, and describes “the synergistic intertwining of certain problems,” such as substance abuse, violence, and HIV/AIDs (also known as SAVA), and violence, immigration, depression, diabetes and abuse (VIDDA).


Woonerf means ‘living street’ and it’s where cars, cyclists, and people share the same space.”

Bailey Deitz, “Rock Island to seek grant money for downtown ‘woonerf’ project,” KWQC, May 2, 2016

Woonerf is a Dutch term that was coined in the 1960s, says The New York Times. The woonerf is a shared space for “pedestrians, cyclists, children and, in some cases, for slow-moving, cautiously driven cars.” Human interaction is encouraged: without traffic lights, stop signs, lane dividers, or sidewalks, woonerf-ers are forced to be aware of others, and to “make eye contact and engage in person-to-person interactions.”

Word Buzz Wednesday: megacity, Philadelphia lean, superfunkycalifragisexy

Shanghai Lights

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for some of the most interesting words of the week. The latest: more than a metropolis; how to eat a Philly cheesesteak; sounding sexy and precocious, Prince-style.

empty nose syndrome

“Brett was convinced his surgery had given him empty nose syndrome, but his doctor disregarded his concerns.”

Joel Oliphint, “Is Empty Nose Syndrome Real? And If Not, Why Are People Killing Themselves Over It?” BuzzFeed, April 14, 2016

Empty nose syndrome is a rare condition that might occur after “surgical procedures on cylindrical structures inside the nose called turbinates,” says BuzzFeed. Symptoms include nasal dryness, a feeling of the nasal airways being “too open” but also a sensation of suffocation, as well as insomnia, anxiety, and fatigue.

The term was coined in 1994 by Dr. Eugene Kern of the Mayo Clinic who observed patients he deemed “nasal cripples” who exhibited such symptoms after turbinate surgery.


“The rise of emerging market megacities as magnets for regional wealth and talent has been the most significant contributor to shifting the world’s focal point of economic activity.”

Parag Khanna, “Megacities, not nations, are the world’s dominant, enduring social structures,” Quartz, April 20, 2016

A megacity is not just a very large city, says Quartz, but one that “represents a large percentage of national GDP,” or gross domestic product. For instance, London makes up almost half of Great Britain’s GDP while the “Boston-New York-Washington corridor” and greater Los Angeles area account for a third of the GDP of the U.S.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest citation of megacity is from 1967 by Norman Mailer: “The high technological nexus and overdeveloped civilization of a megacity like the Dallas–Fort Worth complex.” However, according to Mr. Slang himself, Jonathan Green, the term was in use before then, specifically in the early 1960s in reference to the Cincinnati-Dayton-Columbus nexus, and in the late 1950s to mean simply a very large city.

Philadelphia lean

“You have to do what’s called a Philadelphia lean …. You have to lean over to make sure the juice goes on the pavement.”

Catherine Lucey, “Philly cheesesteak is test for candidates, not just a lunch,” WTOP, April 25, 2016

A proper Philly cheesesteak, according to some, should be dripping with juice, hence the need for the Philadelphia lean, or leaning over to ensure that said juice doesn’t drip on one’s clothes when taking a bite.


“She was describing a certain ineffable emotional state to me, a native Icelander’s sense of comfort while immersed in her neighborhood sundlaug.”

Dan Kois, “Iceland’s Water Cure,” The New York Times, April 19, 2016

Sundlaug translates from Icelandic as “swimming pool” and specifically refers to a public pool, a place where normally reserved Icelandians feel free to socialize, at least according to The New York Times.


“It was, for the lack of a better term, a superfunkycalifragisexy performance.”

Jack Goodson, “Fàbregas, Chelsea sparkle under the Cherries’ moon,” SB Nation, April 23, 2016

Superfunkycalifragisexy — a blend of funky, sexy, and the nonsense word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious — was coined for “Prince’s never-released (but much-bootlegged) The Black Album.” The term is meant “to conjure a heightened state of funky-lusty consciousness,” and also apparently, a well-played soccer game.

Word Buzz Wednesday: farb, Hummers, war-driving

civil war reenactment at antietam

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, your go-to place for some of the most interesting words of the week. The latest: a sartorial sin against history, a noisy conspiracy theory, life imitates the movies.


“The result is titled ‘Bankspeak,’ a play on doublespeak, referring to language that is intentionally ambiguous, meant to obscure or confuse.”

Patricia Cohen, “At the World Bank, a Shortage of Concrete (Language),” The New York Times, April 14, 2016

Researchers conducted an analysis of “more than 65 years of the [World Bank’s] annual reports” and “found a sharp decline in factual precision.” In precision’s place is something that the researchers call “management discourse, a bureaucratic gobbledygook whose meaning is hard to decipher.” Instead of specificities, the language “remains at a more abstract level.”

The term doublespeak was coined in the 1950s and modeled on Newspeak, the euphemistic and propaganda-rife language of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and by extension any euphemistic or deliberately ambiguous language.


“Your quintessential farb might spend all weekend talking on a cell phone, or wear a jumble of mismatched ‘old timey’ costume pieces from different decades.”

Romie Stott, “The Historical Reenactor Accuracy Wars,” Atlas Obscura, April 13, 2016

Farb is historical reenactor slang for someone whose gear and clothing are not just inaccurate but “a sin against history,” says Atlas Obscura. The term was “most likely invented” in the 1960s by the First Maryland “Blackhat” Regiment, which was led by Gerry Rolph, a German teacher. Farb means “color” in German and refers to the Blackhats mocking other units for their “too-colorful uniforms.”

(H/t John Durvin.)


Hijras call themselves she-males and effigies, as well askwaja sera, or the ‘guards of the harem,’ a title that recalls their historical role serving monarchs in the region.”

Zehra Rehman, “The secret language of South Asia’s transgender community,” Quartz, April 15, 2016

Hijra members can be found in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and “identify as men born with the souls of women.” While they dress like women, “no physical transition or change is required to be inducted into the community.” Many identify as neither male nor female but as a “third gender.”


“Everybody who has tinnitus complains at first of environmental noise. ‘Hummers’ are a group of people who cannot accept that they have tinnitus.”

Colin Dickey, “A Maddening Sound,” New Republic, April 8, 2016

Hummers are those who who claim to constantly hear a low humming noise that others can’t hear. The sound has been described as “a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine,” which is most easily heard at night and indoors and has no obvious source.


“[A company] can ‘war-drive,’ sending cars around the U.S. looking for open wifi networks, getting those networks’ IP addresses, and recording their physical locations.”

Kashmir Hill, “How an internet mapping glitch turned a random Kansas farm into a digital hell,” Fusion, April 10, 2016

War-driving is a “computer cracking technique,” says Word Spy, that involves driving around with a wireless-enabled computer and “mapping houses and businesses that have wireless access points.”

The term comes from war dialing, which is “automatically calling thousands of telephone numbers to look for any that have a modem attached.” That term comes from the 1983 movie WarGames, in which Matthew Broderick’s character practices war dialing to look for games.

What’s Happening at Wordnik: Word gamers, Wordnik API and bots, T-shirts


Happy April and welcome to the latest roundup of Wordnik news and events!

Word Gamers Email

Like word games? You’re in luck. Wordnik is currently collecting emails for a Word Gamers newsletter. Whether you’re a dabbler or a developer, an educator or an enthusiast, the Wordnik Word Gamers newsletter will have something for you. Our current plan is to send out the first newsletter in May or when we hit 100 subscribers — whichever comes first! Interested? You can sign up here.

Using the Wordnik API to make non-racist bots

You might have heard about a recent controversial chatbot from Microsoft. Motherboard discussed how not to make a racist bot with several botmakers, including Wordnik friend Darius Kazemi, aka @tinysubversions, who has used the Wordnik API to make several bots, creating a wordfilter to sift out undesirable words.

Erin McKean spoke to Robin Morgan of the Women’s Media Center

In February Wordnik founder Erin McKean spoke to Robin Morgan on her radio show, Women’s Media Center, about how she came to create Wordnik, her lifelong love of dictionaries, and her more recent love of computer programming. Robin also shared with Erin her favorite word: cerulean, which is as pretty as it sounds.

Wordnik T-shirts

Wordnik T-shirt half

Now you can wear Wordnik’s heart over your own with Wordnik T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatshirts. They come in men’s, women’s, and kids’ sizes, and three variations: classic Wordnik, I <3 Words, and All My Favorite Words Hang Out at Wordnik. Get one for the word nerd in your life, or if you happen to be the word nerd, get one for yourself!

Don’t forget!

Finally, don’t forget about PyCon from May 28th through June 5th, where Manuel Ebert of will be presenting on his project with Wordnik, Putting 1 Million New Words into the Dictionary.

Also remember you can support Wordnik by adopting a word for just $25 for a whole year. And be sure to follow us on Twitter and like us Facebook to keep up with the latest Wordnik happenings and news on words and language.