It’s a zarf!

Recently I went out with some friends for dinner. They had chosen a Turkish restaurant in Newtown, in the Inner West of Sydney, very appropriately called Ottoman’s.

We ordered too much of the delightful food. Feeling a bit gorged we decided to have a Turkish coffee at the restaurant rather than going to a nearby café.

To my great delight the thick black, sweet Turkish coffee was served in a small demitasse porcelain cup sitting inside an ornamental cup holder and topped with a lid. I had started a post a few months ago about a word for coffee cup-holders because I thought it was such a wonderful word. It was time to show off.

“What is the word for a coffee cup holder?” I asked, knowing that no one would know.

After a little delay and not much speculation—“It’s a zarf!” I announced to no great acclaim. Of course, someone had to check on Google in case I was making it up.

A zarf (plural: zarfs, zuruuf, zarves) is a holder, usually of ornamental metal for a coffee cup. The word originates in Turkish, not surprisingly, and is used in English as a borrow word.

Drinking Turkish coffee reminds us that coffee drinking was very much an Arabian habit— common in the Levant (see leverage) for a thousand years before it became fashionable in the 17th century in Europe. Despite this, much of our coffee vocabulary comes from European languages, particularly Italian and French. However the word for coffee itself comes from the Arabic word, kahveh, although it is not entirely clear how it originated. One idea is that it comes from caouhe, a kind of seed, or cahoueh or gwaweh, which means to give vigour. Coffee originally was grown in Ethiopia, in particular the province of Kaffa, which is also a strong candidate for the source of the word.

Having established that the language of coffee is more naturally Arabic, I should correct the earlier reference to a demitasse cup, which is French for half cup. When you drink  Turkish coffee you drink it from a fincan. Fincan is the Turkish word for their small porcelain coffee cups originally used with zarfs (but now they often have handles).

Confirming the importance of Arabic as the language of coffee, even the French word, tasse, originates from Arabic. It is an Arabic word for basin (and hence tasseomancy is the word for having your fortune told by reading the coffee grounds in your cup).