I don't know how these things are in America, but I guess capitalism is alike in every part of the world. Here in Europe, you will NEVER EVER see the word "small" next to anything for sale.

Most pizza/drinks/hamburger companies serve "individual", "regular" and "large". Others serve "regular", "large" and "very large". "Small" seems to be a forbidden word. Lately, it seems forbidden even in clothing! Traditional S, M, L and XL clothes are slowly being substituted by M, L, XL and XXL; or even just L with a variable number of X's. What happens? Are small people bad or something? Will I end up being XXXXXL?

Well, at least we will always feel better thinking that now we can buy a super-hyper-mega-extra-large pizza or hamburger for the price of a "small" one some years ago. I guess that's one of the great achievements of capitalism!

Sometimes the smallest size is medium. I have never yet thought to ask what it is the medium of at a time when doing so wouldn't make me feel guilty for delaying the people behind me.

Variations on a theme:

'We have extra small, small and regular.' Espresso shots, perhaps?

'We have extra small, extra regular and extra large.'

'We have fine, diminutive, tiny, small, medium, large, huge, gargantuan and colossal.' Geek humour. Sorry.

'We only have large.'

'We have half-pints, American pints and British pints.'

'We're obliged by European law to use certain measures. You can have a lille, a moyen, a grand or an extra grande. Guten tag!'
The official Starbucks size naming scheme mixes pretentious use of Italian, and lies. The correlation goes roughly like this:

  • "Tall", which in the context of a drink seems synonymous with "large",
  • "Grande", which of course is Italian for "big", and
  • "Venti", which means "twenty," which is the number of ounces.

Originally, in their "home town" of Seattle, they offered Short and Tall, but as tastes for their excellent coffee grew, they introduced Grande, and then Venti, and removed the original Short from the menu. I think Short is still available from under the counter, and used for things like to-go espresso.

In other words, the lowest advertised size denomination at Starbucks is referred to by a terminology that implies "large". They've shifted the scale completely up! There isn't even "medium" any longer! Surely the apocalypse is nigh...

Why can't Starbucks sell "small", "medium", and "large" drinks? Well, in China they used to do exactly that! Until 2007, the three sizes were called 小,中,大 (xiǎo, zhōng, and dà) or small, middle (sized), and big. Close enough! Not that I am defending these global purveyors of mediocre coffee, but the reason for sticking to SML for so long in China is interesting.

One of the biggest deals in Chinese culture is the system of guānxi or connections, and just below that on the chart is the idea of face or miànzi. Many Chinese will literally walk twice as far, spend twice as much, take twice as long, to avoid losing face. Losing face can be saying the wrong thing, arriving early, arriving late, offering to pay, not offering to pay - there are myriad complex rules that interface with the rest of the wonderful, fascinating, ancient thing that is Chinese culture. And so any restaurant or coffee house which required people to know a set of codes to order up standard variations like the size of your cup would be doomed to commercial failure. The risk of not knowing what to call the food you wanted, and losing face, would simply be too great.

This makes it very easy, once you can describe food, or at least rattle off the main ingredients in Mandarin, to get fed in China. You can go to literally any restaurant and say the Chinese equivalent of "Waldorf Salad" (Pāi Huánggua - Smashed Cucumber, and that's exactly what it is) and it comes just as you expect. So rocking into Starbucks for a "S/M/L cup of coffee" works fine, in China at least.

And you know what they call a Big Mac in China? No, not a Royale with Cheese you cheeky thing! It's actually called a Tyrannosaurus Rex (in Mandarin that's Jùwúbà). If anyone knows why, this writer, for one, would be fascinated to be let in on the secret, as everything else in your local Chinese golden arches is called exactly what it is! I only want a small Coke with my chicken burger thanks, and hold the suggest sell.

But finally, thanks to both the extraordinary penetration Western fast-food purveyors have made into the Chinese market, and the local perception of such places as relatively expensive places to eat (I kid you not!), marketing language is now starting to take hold even in this last bastion of calling a spade a spade. Post-2007, the three sizes in China are "middle (sized)", "big", and "especially big" (your translation of the last one may vary). All good things come to an end!

Thanks again to tongpoo for the list of ascii codes for pinyin.

Several years ago, about 1997-1998, the only reliable place I could get a moderately decent cup of joe on the way into work was a Starbucks. (I said moderately decent! Not good! Not gourmet! Put down the torches and pitchforks already!)

This particular Starbucks in question is located across the street from John Wayne Airport, in Orange County, California, in a very busy business/research/industrial area. It is one of the only coffee shops in the immediate area, and is consequently extremely busy between around 7:30 and 10:00 AM.

A typical morning retail exchange for me, during this time, at this particular Starbucks:

"Welcome to Starbucks, how can I help you?"

"I'd like a large dark-roast, please."

"You mean a Venti?"

*grumble*. Now, I've worked retail. It sucks to be messed with. You're just trying to do your job. Your trainer and/or manager tells you to call it a "Venti (TM)". I would normally understand, really I would. I'd play your despotic marketing games, normally, and call it a flying plaid pig if it made a deep, nutty-black steaming cup of the mud of life and awakening appear in front of me sooner. But it will not. And I shall not. And it's Monday morning, and all I want is a large-as-you-have-got cup of raw, hot black coffee. And besides, this is the United States of America, not Italy, and Starbucks started in freakin' Seattle. Why aren't they using an Inuit word for a large cup of coffee? OK, sure, Starbucks may use Italian espresso machines, but a Ferrari owner does not a rally racer make, right? (Call a spade a fucking shovel)

"No, I'd like a large, please.", emphatic emphasis on the "please".

"I'm sorry,", (No, you're not, really, now are you?), "But we have Tall, Grande, and Venti!", extra perkiness. Extra perkiness solves all problems in retail and customer relations. Also, she's apparently had her coffee. I feel like I'm approaching a fickle, angry oracle, and I must be supplicant and be bearing offerings to recieve the wisdom of the ether.

"That's nice. One large dark-roast please, no room for cream or sugar.", (insert potentially lethal Jedi Stare (TM)). Honey, you do still understand the difference between small, medium, and large, don't you? Starbucks can't seriously have a brainwashing program that frighteningly effective, can it? Can it?!)

"We have Tall, Grande...", she stops midsentence, and likely sees the trapped, caged, wild animal stare in my eyes of an IT cubeslave at 7:45 in the godforsaken morning without his precious coffee, yet, "... a-a large you say?"

"Yes, please, a large dark-roast, no room for cream or sugar, please.". Victory! My coffee is presented to me, and I immediately feel much better with it's bitter warmth in my hands, and that I didn't have to call it by some silly Italian word that likely really means something insulting.

Eventually, the more reliable of the staff got used to it, and never questioned it. I'd ask for a large, and they'd give it to me, no questions asked or marketing flim-flammery foisted upon my weary self. It was a good battle, well fought.

I noticed other regulars began calling it a large as well, and this made it all worth it.


Note especially for europeans or those more evolved Stateside: Please don't assume from this one instance that I'm some sort of monosyllablistic monobrow'ed mouth-breather. I fully support, and understand the benefits of, polylingualism. Putting a coffeehouse menu in PseudoItalian is not polylingualism, nor is it going to educate or enlighten anyone. Thank you.

Starbucks started with "Short", and "Tall" coffee cups. It probably made sense in the context that they were just a few local cafes in the beginning. The problem, of course, is the ever-increasing American appetite. To slake that appetite, a new, 16 oz. size was offered: Grande. Furthering the trend is the 20.5 oz. size, Venti.

"Venti" conveniently skirts the fact that it's bigger than "Grande", but with increasing cup sizes, a "Short" cup just didn't seem to cut it anymore. However, it costs less to the company to continue the size, rather than potentially lose customers, so "Short" remains as a secret, much like the "Misto" (cafe au lait), which also is not on the menu.

The partner (that's what Starbucks baristas are called) that loquacious encountered seems to be an exception to the rule. Most people are rather laid back if working at Starbucks. I let people ask for just about any sizing, and give them what they want. The customer should come before some stupid corporate gimmick.

I work at a local chain of coffee shops in New Orleans. Our drink sizes are "small," "medium," and "large." However, as one might expect, a significant number of customers, used to their Starbucks, order using the Starbucks sizes. This confused me for a while, as I'd only been to Starbucks a few times and was unfamiliar with their size scheme.

Luckily, one of my roommates is a Starbucks barrista (or "partner" or whatever), so I sat him down and had him lay out the counterintuitive meanings of "Tall," "Grande" and "Venti."

The next day: a revelation! Most Starbucks customers have no idea what the Starbucks sizes mean!

"I'd like a Tall dark roast."

--I bring them a small dark roast.--

"No! I wanted a Tall. A big one."

How does Starbucks not explode from all the confusion?

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