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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: coffee

coffee date

(1990’s | teenagese? | “first date,” “brief encounter,” “not even a date, really”)

It’s tempting to see the rise of the phrase “coffee date” as concomitant with the rise of the gourmet coffee craze (which hasn’t abated), and the expression did become a lot more common around the time Starbucks did, from the late eighties to the mid-nineties. On-line dating services made their mark only a few years later and produced many more coffee dates, but the term existed well before that. Google Books fishes up a solid reference in Mademoiselle magazine from 1966 (not that Google Books’s dating is all that reliable). That article explained that the coffee date was the college equivalent of the Coke date. There’s no obvious origin for either phrase that I can find in my limited corpora; maybe it bubbled up from below.

College students being so mature and all, naturally they prefer coffee. But the point of the coffee date is not what you consume; it’s a probationary first meeting, which the parties use to size each other up. So it must be short, inexpensive, casual, easy to escape, and in a neutral, public place. Nothing much can happen, and that’s the point. If you hit it off, maybe a lunch date next. “Lunch date,” “dinner date,” and “movie date” are older terms — or at least they became common earlier — that imply a progression whose first step now is the coffee date.

Coffee dates have become so firmly part of the romantic how-to manual that a reaction has developed. While conventional wisdom still recommends them as sensible first meetings, certain apostates, such as this eHarmony blogger, dismiss them as old hat and unlikely to lead to serious relationships; others question whether they should be called “dates” at all. There are always doubters, but even they can’t deny that the dating landscape has changed, tilting the playing field decisively toward Starbucks.

speed dating

(late 1990’s)

An expression, and concept, with a verifiable origin. The on-line consensus — unanimous as far as I can tell — says that Rabbi Yaakov Deyo and his wife invented speed dating in 1998 as a way to encourage Jewish singles to meet each other and form relationships. It goes like this: between five and ten women sit at individual tables. The same number of men wait nearby. At a signal, each man sits down at a table and talks with the woman for eight minutes, then moves to the next table and does it again. In slightly over an hour, you meet several candidates, at least one or two of whom might be worth a follow-up. Now several national organizations sponsor speed-dating events, which may or may not have any religious, ethnic, or gender restrictions. The practice is sometimes known as “turbo-dating.”

I was struck by the ritual character of speed-dating, which was after all created by a rabbi. The basics of the process don’t vary much regardless of who’s in charge: several conversations in succession, each a fixed period of time; then participants notify the organizer which live one(s) are of further interest, whereupon the organizer puts two people in touch if they appear on each other’s lists. Perhaps the level of rigor does not measure up to the detailed ritualistic instructions of the Torah, but there’s a rule-bound quality all the same. One site notes the roots of speed dating in the traditional Jewish concept of the shiddach (match), basically an arranged marriage made with the help of a middleman or -woman. At any rate, like many concepts invented by Jews, from monotheism to relativity, speed dating has spread quickly and exercised tremendous influence.

It’s another kind of prescribed first date and so is related to the coffee date, but it’s even more circumscribed. Like a coffee date, your chances of success are low but the investment of time and energy is small, and like a coffee date, it can only arguably be called a date at all. Speed dating is distinctive because of the sheer number of people involved; if you buy the theory that most of the time we decide in a matter of seconds whether we’re attracted to someone or not, the approach makes sense. Just get a bunch of generally like-minded, well-disposed people in the same room and let nature take its course. The irony is that while speed dating looks like it was designed to deal with a glut of possibly eligible partners, it was actually invented to keep members of a relatively small, insular group from finding mates elsewhere. (Of course, in a large city like Los Angeles, where Rabbi Deyo first tried out speed dating, there are thousands of unattached Jewish adults, still an impossible number to navigate on one’s own.)

When a reader asked advice columnist Carolyn Hax her opinion of speed dating, she replied, “I liked it a whole lot better when it was called a ‘cocktail party.’” The point is well taken; speed dating is a highly regulated version of what was once known as “mingling.” You went to a party with people you didn’t know, and you went around and talked to them, allowing you to determine who might be a possible romantic interest. No timekeepers or chaperones required, and if you wanted someone else to have your number, you gave it to them. I’ve never tried speed dating, but I was never much good at mingling, so something tells me I wouldn’t be much of a speed dater, either. Both of my long-term relationships began with dates that lasted several hours, so maybe that’s just how I roll.

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