Say it, don’t spray it.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering about the word “froth,” or “frothing.” I recently bought an espresso machine and the manual uses the word “frothing” quite a lot in the wording. I was just curious — where and how did we get this strange word? — Judy.

Reading the manual, are we? Whaddayou, some kind of communist? Real consumers don’t read manuals. They tear open the packaging, fill the thing with gasoline, pancake batter, tropical fish, dirty laundry or whatever seems appropriate, plug it in or turn the key, and let ‘er rip. Nine times out of ten it’ll work, and, if it doesn’t, you either buy another one or hire a lawyer (especially if it burned down your house or traumatized your cat). Economists go on and on about “consumer confidence,” but trust me, it’s really “consumer impatience” that drives the US economy. Poor impulse control “r” us.

My own espresso period was back in the late 1980s, when you could sit in a place called The Peacock on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village nursing a double espresso for hours while listening to tragic opera duets and casting a baleful eye on all the poor deluded fools marching grimly by outside. Today I drink Maxwell House and cast my baleful eye from the seat of a tractor. But I do remember “froth” playing a large role in the ritual of the espresso machine, most of which have a little nozzle that dispenses steam to “froth up” milk to make cappuccino.

“Froth” is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the aggregation of small bubbles formed in liquids by agitation, fermentation, effervescence, etc.” Oddly enough, the OED lists “foam” as a synonym of “froth,” but in my experience foam is denser than froth. Shaving cream, for instance, is definitely a “foam” and not a “froth,” and even shampoo produces what is generally considered a “lather,” lighter than a “foam” but definitely not an airy, bubbly “froth.” The OED goes on to declare that “foam” is a more dignified word than “froth” (“Being the proper word for the product of the agitation of the waves, foam is more dignified than the synonymous froth, and usually implies more copious production”). I can’t believe I’m seriously thinking about all this.

In any case, the origin of “froth” is, sadly, notably devoid of fizz. “Froth” first appeared in print in the late 14th century (“Samarie made his king for to passe, as frooth on the face of water,” 1382), apparently drawn directly from the Old Norse “frotha,” meaning “froth.” By the late 16th century we had started using “froth” as a metaphor for “the insubstantial product of thoughts or emotion” (“Forgive those foolish words — They were the froth my raging folly mov’d When it boil’d up,” Dryden, 1676) or “something of little worth” (“What win I if I gaine the thing I seeke? … a froth of fleeting ioy,” Shakespeare, 1593). “Froth” was also used in this period in a very negative sense as a synonym of “scum” (“Out, you froth, you scumme,” 1603).

“Froth” as a verb, which also appeared in the 14th century, acquired an interesting twist. It has been used, of course, to mean a liquid “frothing up,” either by itself or, for instance, by a Starbucks barista’s hand. But “to froth” has also meant “to foam at the mouth,” due either to illness or extreme anger. This second sense gave us, as of about 1960, the enormously useful noun “frother,” which the OED defines as “An excitable person, especially one readily provoked to outrage in defense of a principle or ideology” (“The frothers will not be pleased to learn of another initiative from a group of rock musicians … to produce a benefit record for miners’ families,” Guardian (UK), 1984). There have always been “frothers,” of course, but that OED definition could definitely do double duty as a plausible summation of most of today’s cable TV and internet.

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