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History of Cappuccino: What’s in a name?

When you’re thumbing through your Italian-English dictionary as you madly try to internalize as much of the Italian language as you can before your Italy vacation, there are some words that will stand out as being instantly familiar or easily recognizable. Words like “spaghetti” and “ravioli” will be familiar to you, as they’re Italian pasta exports known on dinner tables all over the world. Words like “associazione” and “studente” should be recognizable because they’re similar to their English counterparts. And when you encounter the word “cappuccino” on the menu, you’ll probably sigh with relief because you know exactly what it is.

But do you know where the word “cappuccino” comes from?

To most people – Italian and otherwise – the word “cappuccino” refers first and foremost to what is probably the most popular Italian coffee export. But the word “cappuccino” itself is much older, and has entirely un-food-related origins. The good news is that you don’t need to know any of this in order to enjoy your cappuccino while you’re in Italy, but it’s a fun factoid to pull out at parties – especially the ones where you’re showing off the photos from your trip through Italy!

Religious Beginnings

The word “cappuccio” means “hood” in Italian, and the “-ino” ending makes it what’s called the “diminutive.”

In other words, instead of just meaning “hood,” “cappuccino” means “little hood.”

It’s because of the hoods worn by a particular order of Franciscan monks which was founded in the early 16th century that they were given this moniker – Capuchin monks, or “Cappuccini” in Italian.

(Yes, these are the same monks of the famed Capuchin Crypt in Rome.)

Monkey Business

Perhaps you’ve heard of capuchin monkeys, and thought the name sounded like your favorite espresso drink.

Well, the monkeys have the monks to thank for their name just as the coffee beverage does.

In the late 18th century, the monkeys were given the name “capuchin” after the monks, because their coloring vaguely resembles the hoods Capuchin monks wear.

History or Mystery?

The popular coffee drink that has taken over as the first thing most people think of when they hear the word “cappuccino” dates back to the early 20th century, but the name wasn’t associated with the beverage we know and love today until just before 1950. The popular story is that someone got the bright idea to call the drink a “cappuccino” because the color of the foam mixed with the coffee resembled the pale brown color of a Capuchin monk’s robe, but some discount this as urban legend. One tale that’s widely regarded as myth – but told and retold just the same – is that the drink derives its name from the 17th century Capuchin monk who invented it, Marco d’Aviano. (There’s no record of d’Aviano having invented any kind of coffee beverage whatsoever, and the first patent for the drink we now know as the cappuccino wasn’t filed until 1901 – so even if d’Aviano invented it, it’s his fault we think he didn’t because he didn’t file a patent. So there. Hrmph.)

Not an Afternoon Drink

One of the little tidbits of information many folks planning Italy trips tend to pick up early on – whether they ultimately choose to ignore it or not – is that “Italians never drink cappuccino after 11am.” This isn’t an urban legend, it’s more or less true – although the time associated with this “rule” is fungible. The reasoning behind it, however, isn’t. Italians are a superstitious bunch, and one of the life truths they cling to is that drinking milk after any meal will royally mess up your ability to digest your food properly. So having a cappuccino after lunch, or after dinner, would be unthinkable. To the Italians, milk is, in fact, a meal – which is why having a cappuccino in the morning en route to work requires no other food to be considered a complete breakfast. (They’ll often have a small pastry, too, but not always.) But should you have a hankering for a cappuccino after your meal, feel free to ask for one. If you’re in a part of the country that sees tourists on a regular basis, they’ll be used to your odd requests. And if you’re not, at least you won’t be shocked when the waiter refuses to grant your wish “for your own health.”

Does it matter?

As mentioned, there’s no reason you need to know where roots of the word “cappuccino” come from – all you need to know is how to say it, and you’ve probably got that mastered already.

>> Read more about Italian coffee – yes, there are alternatives to the cappuccino that you can safely order at any time of day – and get the vocabulary down before you go!

original photos, top to bottom: erinc salor, Bantosh, Arriving at the horizon, roevin, Hadassah28