Monday, July 29, 2013

Mimi's Last Coffee

I was in the process of putting together something for my other blog, and it occurred to me that one of the issues that I was bound to be addressing was the fluidity and vagueness of language. Really, it's not just about the Bible either, but about the way people nitpick details in literature.

Anyway, many years ago, Scott McCloud had made an improvised comic strip called Mimi's Last Coffee. I say improvised because it was part of McCloud's "Morning Improv" project, in which he was taking suggestions from readers for titles and then making them up as he went along. In the associated discussion forums, some discussion broke out after McCloud published the first panel of the comic:

Somebody wondered where the story could go since this appeared to be Mimi enjoying her last coffee, and since that was the title of the story, what else was there to tell? Well, it's been at the back of my mind time and time again over the years, and I thought it would be an interesting exercise in examining the fluidity of language. The fact is, comic strip aside (although McCloud does play with possible meanings of the title in his storytelling) the phrase "Mimi's last coffee" has a near-unlimited range of possible meaning.

Starting at the end of the phrase with the word "coffee", I think a lot of people don't realize that they're dealing with a word that has so many meanings. People probably assume most of the time that "coffee" is referring to the hot brown liquid that many people enjoy with breakfast, but that's just one of a number of meanings. "Coffee" is a word that refers to many aspects of related concepts to that beverage. Coffee is a beverage, yes, but not only can it be prepared in numerous ways (Have you ever tried Turkish coffee? It's a whole different experience!) but the word refers to different parts of the process of making coffee. Starting from the beginning, there is a tree called "coffee", and it produces a fruit called "coffee". The seed of this fruit is known as "coffee", and this seed is commonly dried out and roasted to make a substance known as "coffee". The dried, roasted "coffee" is ground to a variety of different granularities and packaged as "coffee" which people buy and combine with hot water to make the aforementioned beverage. After the grounds are used, they're still "coffee" although nobody consumes them; they either thrown them away or use them for fertilizer (I think).

Being such a big part of our culture, "coffee"" is also used for a number of other concepts related to the food product in one way or another. For instance, "coffee" is a shade of medium-brown. (Mimi could be painting!) "Coffee" can also refer to the food product in a collective sense, referring to types or brands of coffee, as in, "I don't like Folger's coffee or any of the grocery-store coffees; I prefer Starbucks coffee." Actually, if you go to Starbucks or a similar coffee establishment, you'll find that they offer many different coffees. I used to work an opening shift at Starbucks, and before we opened the store, one of the things that had to be done was of course brewing up the coffee; I'd brew a pot of dark roast coffee, then a light roast coffee, and decaf would be my "last coffee". Many years before that, though, I used to have a social gathering at my house in college every week at which I served my friends coffee; such social gatherings are commonly referred to as "coffees". There may be other shades of meaning (including the idiomatic phrase "wake up and smell the coffee"), but that will do for this writing, I think.

So, how about "last"? Once again, devoid of context a person usually thinks of the word "last" as meaning "final" but I think even in that sense of the word there are shades of meaning. Someone who was going to quit drinking coffee and had a hard time keeping their resolve might repeatedly declare "This is my last coffee!" and then have yet still one more, and one more, etc. There are other senses of finality, however. Suppose Mimi were to treat two of her friends to coffees at the local cafe, and having only two hands in which to carry coffee cups, she might carry two cups to the table and then go back to the counter for her last coffee. Also, even if she is drinking her coffee alone, any particular cup of coffee might be her last coffee of the day. If Mimi were working at the coffee shop, even if she intends to come back for a drink after her shift concludes, she could very well call the final cup she serves her last coffee. If she's making coffee for herself at home, and she finds she has only enough supplies for one more cup/pot, she might declare that she has drunk her last coffee, and must go to the store for more.

Furthermore, the word "last" doesn't only carry the concept of finality, but the concept of previousness. Mimi may be enjoying a cup of coffee now, but may have a story about how bad her last coffee tasted. Or if she throws the sort of little coffee parties I mentioned earlier, and you attended one, you might hear about how things went at Mimi's last coffee. There are other senses of the word, too. Suppose that Mimi went to the cafe and found that they were serving a particular coffee blend that was her least favorite; she might declare that that is the last coffee she would ever drink, and have no coffee at all.

Finally, there is, I suppose, the question of who (or what) "Mimi" is. As I already hinted at somewhere above, Mimi need not be the consumer of the coffee, but could be the server, or some sort of host; I also implied the possibility that Mimi could be an artist painting a picture in mainly brown colors. Mimi could be a coffee grower, a coffee roaster, or a professional coffee taster. There's a chain of restaurants called Mimi's Cafe, at which I've never had a coffee, but I assume they offer it, and every day at every location there must be a last coffee served. Mimi could be a company that produces and sells coffee, and "Mimi's last coffee" could be a reference to their most recently introduced product. Mimi could be a family pet that found an unfortunate taste for coffee, unfortunate because coffee was poisonous to her and it caused her demise.

Language is a very fluid thing by necessity, and that has its good points and bad points. Namely, when you read what may appear to be a simple phrase, you can never be 100% sure that you've got a clear grasp on it, so it's best not to leap to conclusions about whether it is stating something right or wrong.