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Learned Vol. 5, Issue 7
This week: The humble coffee sleeve has a totally different name. That’s not surprising given what we know about how language works. Let’s get into it.
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Imagine you go to the coffee shop, you get yourself a nice, steaming hot cup of dark roast - dark, fragrant, bitter but not burnt...and too damned hot through the paper cup to pick up without burning yourself. Enter the zarf, a humble sleeve of cardboard you might know better as a...sleeve. Or jacket. Or something.
Let me back up. This week, I've been reading A.J. Jacobs "Thanks a Thousand," which documents his quest to thank every single person involved in the process of creating his morning cup of coffee. It is a fascinating book, made all the more readable by Jacobs' skill and clear enthusiasm for his subject.
In "Thanks a Thousand," as Jacobs describes his quest, he muses on larger points raised by the mere fact that he is able to walk to the cafe, order a cup of coffee, and then, beans that were grown half a world away are turned into a drink replete with both cup and lid, sourced from different companies, and served with a smile by a complete stranger. When broken down into its constituent steps, his quest reveals the marvel of the modern world in action.
I'm not going to get too deep into the rest of the book, suffice it to say that I recommend it and you shouldn't be surprised if it gets referenced again soon as it had quite an impact on me. However, because this is Learned, and what we do is words, I thought it would be fun to look at a new word taught to me by Jacobs through his book, and that is, zarf.
As Jacobs says:
A little research revealed that coffee cup sleeves have been around since ancient times. They even have a name: zarfs. Turkish coffee and Chinese tea were served to nobles in zarfs made from gold, silver, tortoiseshell, and other materials.
Jacobs goes on to explain that the cardboard version we see most commonly these days is actually a trademarked product called the Java Jacket.Thus, the fact that we are more accustomed to using the words sleeve or jacket is thanks to good marketing rather than any inherent linguistic bias. Which, to me, is kind of a shame. Because zarf is a great word. It’s fun to say. And, at the moment, it’s as close to unknown in English as a word can be.
What I mean is, zarf is not in my favorite English dictionary, nor is it in my go to Japanese-English dictionary. It’s not even in my thesaurus. More importantly, when I run a search in the NOW corpus on English-corpora.org, zarf has a frequency rating of 56. Which is like…nothing. Going through the examples confirms this as most of them refer to articles and webpages where zarf is used as someone’s name rather than a coffee sleeve. And the few results that do use zarf as we are using it are more explainer articles, introducing both the item and the word to the English-speaking world.
So it’s not really being used in English right now. But I think that might be about to change. At the moment, every hobby and niche interest the world over is finding its community. Every aspect of said hobby is being examined, analyzed, and arranged just so. And, of course, this is all happening through language.
Professions and hobbies alike collect words into vast collections of jargon, slang, idioms, abbreviations, and so on. They let insiders discuss matters quickly in some cases and in great detail in others. These words allow some communities to grow and expand a hobby while letting others narrow and refine a hobby into sub-categories and ever more specialized niches.
In other words, as humans, all we really want to do is to sit around and talk about the things we’re passionate about. Like coffee and 19th century Turkish metal-worked cups and how they relate to each other.
Which is why zarf is poised to enter itself into the English coffee culture the world over. It is, at its core, a collector's word, an enthusiast's word. If you're really into coffee, enough that you can have long, serious discussions about where and how it's grown and what flavors are imparted by different roasting processes, there's a good chance that zarf is word you can stock in your lexicon without any trouble. I hope you do so.
And, if you do have some obscure, odd word related to your hobby or special interest, let me know in the comments. In the meantime, stay curious, and I'll talk with you next week.
Down the Rabbit Hole:
So, I love coffee, but I’m not really a collector of coffee stuff. I just want to drink my morning cup and move on with my day. No, the thing I will bore you to tears over is fountain pens. Like every hobby, pen collector forums and review sites have taken root all over the social internet and, like every hobby, the nooks and crannies and rabbit holes ramble on for miles and miles. Here are a few quick stops along the way:
First, make sure you’re up to date with the latest news and opinions by reading the blogs at The Pen Addict, The Gentleman Stationer, and Pen Chalet. Once you have a good idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to go shopping.
In the past few years, several companies have taken it upon themselves to provide high-quality fountain pens for a fraction of what you might be expecting. Sailor’s Lecoule Clear Barrel pens are one of my current, reasonably priced, favorites as is the Platinum Plaisir Fountain Pen, which I would especially recommend for beginners as it is especially easy to clean and maintain.
And, of course, once you have a pen, you’ll need ink. I have recently discovered Ferris Wheel Press' line of inks. Not only are they lasting and resistant to smearing, they come in a range of colors that ride the line between pastel and muted. I've been able to get the standard four colors (black, blue, red, and green) in shades that are still easy to distinguish and read but that are not quite as bright and garish as a standard pen.
From the Archives:
Back in 2019, I wrote about a bit of military slang that has made the jump over to jargon - Learned Volume 2, Issue 21: FUBAR. Enjoy!
I am an unabashed fan of Jacobs. I've read most of his books; several years ago, while trying to better understand my own feelings on religion and belief systems, I read Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically simultaneously with David Plotz's Good Book. It is not an experience to be taken lightly, yet for anyone raised in any of the Christian churches, it is eye-opening.
In this case, it’s actually easier to see what a zarf is than to have it explained. I recommend going to Google and doing an image search on “Turkish zarf.” Your search should return a wealth of images for ornate, intricately worked coffee and tea cups. (I’m not linking because Google’s algorithm has gotten so ad-driven that there’s no guarantee you’d see any of the same results; it’s better to run your own search.)
Although, as I understand it, most of the large chains now produce their own sleeves and companies like Java Jacket cater to smaller, independent cafes and coffee suppliers.
More importantly, it’s not actually the name of a Thundercat. You’re thinking of Snarf. I had to look it up, too.
Shout-out to Merriam-Webster!
I love coffee. I'm not a heathen. But I'm perfectly happy to listen to the advice of the professional roasters and procurers at my local shop; they have yet to steer me wrong. That said, the best cup of coffee I've ever had in my life was at a beachside cafe in Jamaica. Surroundings do play their part, don't they?