Armenian Language Corner

“A Cup of Black Water, Please!”

They say that Ethiopia was the homeland of native wild coffee, and the first reference to coffee drinking or the coffee tree came from Yemen. The origin of the word coffee, therefore, is Arabic. The word qahwah, on its turn, has several etymologies.

It appears that when the Arabic Peninsula fell under Ottoman domination, the Arabic word and the beverage entered the Turkish language, which recorded it as kahve. The Dutch loaned the word as koffie, which probably become the path for the appearance of coffee in the English language at the end of the sixteenth century. The Italians loaned kahve as caffe, which became the root for French café. While the French word means “coffeehouse,” the English language has borrowed café with the meaning of “a small restaurant selling light meals and drinks.”

But the Armenian word for “coffee,” soorj (սուրճ), is completely at odds either with the Arabic and the Turkish words. Its first written references to the word are from 1787-1788.

Soorj constitutes a little mystery for linguists, who have been forced to conclude that perhaps it is an original development. Some scholars have suggested that may be an onomatopoeic word, the kind derived from a natural sound (for instance, the English word crow comes from Old English crawe, imitative of a bird’s cry). Our word soorj would have imitated the sound we do when we drink hot coffee. Another explanation suggests that it was invented by a member of the Mekhitarist Congregation (founded in 1701) on the basis of the words sev choor (սեւ ջուր “black water”). As linguist Hrachia Ajarian remarked in his etymological dictionary, sev choor meant “coffee” in the secret language used of Constantinople, where he was born.

Enjoy your “black water,” but don’t drink it too hot!