No Jokes Allowed: Starbucks Blonde Name Review


Is your coffee female or male?

You’ve probably never thought about it, but Starbucks has now forced your hand. Their new, lighter coffee roast is called Starbucks Blonde – and that’s “blonde” with an “e”, which normally means it applies to women (as “blond” applies to men). It debuted in January 2012 and was designed for people who prefer coffee that is “subtle, mellow, lighter-bodied, full of flavor, and delicious.” Starbucks now has three main roasts: Dark, Medium, and Blonde.

Blonde itself has two varieties, Willow and Veranda, which presumably conjure up images of where you should be drinking it, in and around your gracious residence. The bright, happy packaging reinforces this, with images of a stylized tree and an old-fashioned porch swing, respectively.

But why Blonde? And more specifically, why Blonde with an “e”?

A little bit of internet research reveals that “blond” is indeed a part of brewing lingo, although not nearly as common a term as “French Roast”. Rombouts, the Belgian coffee company, claims that “‘Blonde’ roasting is commonly used in Finland and northern countries. It produces a light coffee which is acidic but not bitter.”

And the Coscina Brothers Coffee Company in Hawaii also support this use:

Denotes a flexible, delicate and smooth flavour. The bean is of a pale cinnamon colour and has a drier appearance. It’s an excellent choice for those who prefer a soft coffee. A blond roast denotes a coffee with a little more caffeine than a dark roast.

Interestingly, Starbucks has registered both Veranda Blend and Starbucks Willow Blend as trademarks, but not Starbucks Blonde, so presumably they trying to use it in a descriptive way. (They’ve also registered “Gazebo Summer Blend”, so look for that, oh, around May.)

I’d say that qualifies as legitimate use: Starbucks looked around, and chose an unusual, but perfectly accurate and accepted word for very lightly roasted coffee. And use of “blond wood” as a way of describing very light (or even bleached) wood is very familiar, especially if you frequent IKEA as much as I do. Perhaps the additional “e” was meant o imply a level of sophistication, or they used it because someone liked the way it looked. Yet there’s something about the additional “e” that adds another layer of meaning to the brand.

If you Google the word “blonde” you’ll see what I mean: everything you ever wanted to know about blonde jokes. Happily, the second hit is the Urban Dictionary definition, which clearly states: “A hair color sometimes associated with unintelligence when in fact intelligence is not affected noticeably by hair color.” It’s still sadly true that blondeness, especially in women, is associated with stupidity, vacuousness, and artificiality. It is at once a symbol or desirability (because of its rarity) and of undesirability (because, really, who wants to be thought of as stupid?)

Starbucks, of course, is aware of this, and even went to the extent of issuing a “no blonde jokes” memo to individual Starbucks stores, as reported in the Starbucks Gossip blog:

We were told at a Regional Rally there are absolutely no Blonde jokes to be told around the coffee what so ever. It will be a written offense if so. This came right from the RD’s [Regional Director] mouth to about 100 SM’s [Store Manager] so communicate back to our stores at our own meetings.

So, on the positive side: light, refined, rare, feminine (are they targeting women? hard to say). The negative is only because of Western society’s sexist assumptions about blonde women, which Starbucks is actively trying to head off. On the whole: good choice!

To take this discussion one step further, though: there are very subtle nuances to words that are even more difficult to articulate, except by example. In the case of “blonde”, I offer this story (since I’m a linguist, all my stories are ridiculously academic and revolve around words).

In an Intensive Greek seminar at UC Berkeley, the class got stuck discussing the word εὐγενής, which is eugenēs in romanized writing. You can probably recognize the “eu-” prefix from words like euphemism and euphonious; it means “good”, while “genes” is very much related to words like genetic, and means “born”. A translation of eugenēs might be “of noble birth” or “noble in nature” – but it doesn’t necessarily mean “noble” in an upper-class way. It can mean someone with a pure, honorable, or generous nature, an inborn, ineffable quality. The instructor was having a hard time conveying all this, so one of the more fluent students turned to the class and said, in exasperation:

“It means blonde.”

Overall Name Grade: B+

Final Grade:



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