By far, the most common spelling used throughout the
world today is "espresso". This is a shortened
form of the original Italian name for the drink "caffe
espresso" (accent marks omitted). This spelling is
considered to be the correct spelling by the vast majority
of coffee consumers, vendors, retailers, and producers.
Some English language dictionaries also list "expresso"
as a variant spelling. However, this does not mean the
spelling is ‘equally valid.’ (see the post by Jesse
Sheidlower included below)
It was pointed out during the great "espresso vs.
expresso" debate (spring ’94) that the Italian alphabet
does not even contain the letter "X," which is
Further, it was discovered that at least three
dictionaries contained incorrect definitions of the word
"espresso". The American Heritage Dictionary gave
the following definition:
"A strong coffee brewed by forcing steam under
pressure through darkly roasted, powdered coffee
The Oxford English Dictionary said:
"Coffee brewed by forcing steam through powdered
The Webster New World Dictionary gives:
"coffee prepared in a special machine from finely
ground coffee beans, through which steam under high
pressure is forced."
All three of these are wrong. In fact, espresso is a
strong coffee brewed by quickly forcing hot water
through darkly roasted, finely-ground coffee beans.
(Some espresso makers do use steam, but only to force the
hot water through the ground coffee. The steam NEVER touches
the coffee. Many espresso makers use no steam at all.
Instead, they use either a pump or a piston to quickly force
hot water through the ground coffee.)
Once these errors and the origins of the word
"espresso" had been pointed out, the argument
"but expresso is in the dictionary" quickly began
to crumble. The final death blow to this position came in a
post by dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower. This post is
reproduced in its entirety below:
Jesse Sheidlower writes
I find this thread fascinating. I regret that it
demonstrates an unfamiliarity with dictionaries and how to
use them, but no matter. I believe that I am the only
dictionary editor to participate in this discussion, so
let me waste a bit more bandwidth addressing some of the
points made so far, and introducing a few others:
- The OED, Second Edition, does include _espresso_ and
_expresso_, the latter being a variant of the former.
It correctly derives it from Italian _caffe espresso_.
[Accents left off here.] Whoever claimed it derives
the term from a would-be Italian _caffe expresso_ was
- There _is_ an "x" in Latin and Italian.
Mike Oliver points out that there are two Italian
alphabets, one (il tradizionale) with no w, x or y,
and the other one with all the letters in the English
alphabet. The latter seems to be the one currently in
use. (Reference: Il grande dizionario Garzanti della
lingua italiana, Garzanti Editore s.p.a, 1987).
- There are four major American dictionaries
(published by Merriam Webster, Webster’s New World,
Random House, and American Heritage). The most recent
edition of each gives _espresso_ as the main form, and
_expresso_ as a variant only. The fact that _expresso_
is listed in the dictionary does not mean that it is
equally common: the front matter for each dictionary
explains this. The person who claimed that three
dictionaries including OED give _expresso_ as
"equally valid" was in error.
- Dictionaries, in general, do not dictate usage: they
reflect the usage that exists in the language. If a
dictionary says that _espresso_ is the main spelling,
it means that in the experience of its editors (based
on an examination of the language), _espresso_ is
notably more common. It does not mean that the editors
have a vendetta against _expresso_.
- To the linguist who rejects the authority of
dictionaries: I agree that language is constantly
changing; I’m sure that every dictionary editor in the
country does as well. Dictionaries are outdated before
they go to press. But I think they remain accurate to
a large extent. Also, if you are going to disagree
with the conclusions of a dictionary, you should be
prepared to back yourself up. I can defend, with
extensive written evidence, our decision to give
_espresso_ as the preferred form.
- The spelling _espresso_ is the form used by the copy
desks of the _New York Times,_ _Gourmet,_ _Bon Appetit,_
The _Wine Spectator,_ the _Wall St. Journal,_ the
_L.A. Times,_ _Time,_ _Newsweek,_ and to my knowledge
every other major or minor newspaper or magazine,
general or food-related, in the English-speaking
world. The fact that a handwritten menu on an Italian
restaurant door spells it "expresso" is
trivial by comparison.
- In sum: though both _espresso_ and _expresso_ are
found, the former is by far the more common. It is
also to be favored on immediate etymological evidence,
since the Italian word from which it is directly
borrowed is spelled _espresso_. The form _espresso_ is
clearly preferred by all mainstream sources.