“Cuppa”

My colleague McKay Jenkins writes:

What’s with the newly trendy use of the word cuppa, to imply a coffee- or tea-drinking experience? My lovely wife tells me that this is a “400-year-old” British expression. Is she right?

Well, McKay, 79 years, 400 years, what’s the diff? The OED says the term is used “elliptically” and colloquially to mean cup o’ tea and offers a first citation from Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934): “Taking a strong cuppa at six-thirty in their shirt sleeves.” All subsequent citations are from U.K. or Commonwealth sources.

But McKay is right that it’s hit these shores. The Tampa Bay Times in an article last month referred to a local establishment that serves “lunch and an old-fashioned cuppa,” and the Palm Beach Post said of a tea house in that city, “the experience isn’t complete without a girl to chatter with and a good, strong cuppa.” (Must be something about Florida.)

The interesting thing about cuppa is that, like some other NOOBs (their identity escapes my mind at the moment), it has acquired an additional meaning here. McKay alludes to it: cuppa to mean (the horror!) a cup of coffee. Thus, Holley’s Cuppa is a coffee shop in Las Vegas. And an Associated Press dispatch from December 2012, datelined “Golden Triangle, Thailand,” begins:

In the lush hills of northern Thailand, a herd of 20 elephants is helping to excrete some of the world’s most expensive coffee.

Trumpeted as earthy in flavor and smooth on the palate, the exotic new brew is made from beans eaten by Thai elephants and plucked a day later from their dung. A gut reaction creates what its founder calls the coffee’s unique taste.

Stomach turning or oddly alluring, this is not just one of the world’s most unusual specialty coffees. At $500 per pound, it’s also among the world’s priciest.

For now, only the wealthy or well-traveled have access to the cuppa, which is called Black Ivory Coffee.

The U.S. cuppa contains multitudes. The Philadelphia Daily News recently noted: “One trick is to stir chopped chocolate into a little of the milk to make a paste, then add that to the rest of the steamed milk, for a smoother, richer cuppa.” That’s right, a hot chocolate cuppa. What’s next, cold beverages?

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22 responses to ““Cuppa”

  1. Been used in Australia for yonks. Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander, so perhaps a Commonwealth influence at work there. *Cannot* refer to coffee or any other beverage.

    • I must also add the recent Australian usages: a ‘cuppa-ccino’ and a ‘mug-a-ccino’ meaning a small cappuccino coffee and a large one.

      As far as I’m concerned, “a cuppa” means a cup of tea, but you can also say ‘a cuppa coffee’ as long as you stipulate the difference.

  2. Should only be used for tea. Can’t imagine having a cuppa anything else (though being Scottish I might refer to it as a “wee cuppie”) How about “cuppa cha”? Is cha a colonial throwback, now resurfacing as chai? Hm, time to go make myself a nice cuppa :)


  3. “The Java Jive”

    There has also been in this country a long time the phrase–A cup-a(of)- Joe- that cup being coffee or Java.
    I think that heralded back mostly to WWII era, and was also diner lingo.
    My mother, who lived in England briefly as a child about 1924, used to refer to having a cuppa. She alsways meant tea, and meant it as a British reference, to what the English people said when they wanted their tea in the afternoon.

  4. What about the song “I like a nice cuppa tea in the mornings …”, popular in the 1930s, if not before? And revived by British tea television adverts in the ’50s?

  5. “Let’s have a cup a coffee” is normal relaxed American pronunciation for “cup of.” A “cuppa” always means tea to me, burt I’m not dismissing the inclusion of the coffee sense in thwe US.ec

  6. For what it’s worth, in about 1989, I wrote “cuppa” into a radio spot for a stock brokerage firm that was eager to get retirees to come and sit in its “board” room. The client said, “What the hell is a ‘cuppa’?” and rejected it. Probably just as well.

  7. Here, in India, we are familiar with the phrase, “Not my cuppa.”

  8. And don’t forget its not-quite-obsolete-in-these-decimal-times companion word “pinta” – for “pint of milk”. Over here, where matches are sold in boxes, there used to be a brand called “Boxa”, thus forcing everyone who asked for matches (and did not enunciate their words clearly) to ask for that particular product.

  9. Pinta is also from advertising: the good old Milk Marketing Board’s

    Drinka Pinta Milk-a-day !

    I associated “cuppa” with advertising as well – I assumed it was Ty-Phoo that introduced it.

  10. Clearly “Cuppa” derives from “Cup of Tea” via “Cup o’ Tea”. Similar terms can relate to “Cup o’ Coffee”/”Cuppa Coffee” and “Cup o’ Chocolate”/”Cuppa Chocolate”, but in the UK *only* “Tea” is dropped entirely from the phrase. So you might have a conversation in the UK in which person 1 says “I’ll have a cuppa” and person 2 says: “And I’ll have a cuppa coffee” – the first person would be having tea, and the second person coffee.

  11. Ornithorhynchus

    My mother, who lived in Oklahoma her entire life, often said ‘cuppa’– at least as far back as the 1980s. And it always referred to coffee. (Like all real Americans, she only drank tea in tall glasses with ice.)

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