I know that the word cafe (referring to a place to go eat) stems directly from the same word in French meaning coffee, but what etymological connection does it have with the English word cafeteria? The two words have different connotations in English but I wonder if cafeteria and cafe share a closer background or snynonymity (either in English or Fench) or if one's usage predates the other's.

General reference resources vary about the details, especially as concerns the origins of cafeteria. Merriam Webster, with reference to cafeteria in the sense of "a restaurant in which the customers serve themselves or are served at a counter and take the food to tables to eat" and in the sense of "lunchroom", says the origins are

American Spanish cafetería coffeehouse, from cafetera coffee maker, from French cafetière, from café.

First Known Use: 1894.

Merriam gives the first known use of cafeteria as a adjective in the sense of "providing a selection from which a choice may be made" as 1908.

Random House (at Dictionary.com), for noun senses similar to those given by Merriam, says the origin is earlier:

1830-40, Americanism; < American Spanish cafetería café, equivalent to Spanish cafeter(a) coffeemaker (< French caf(f) etière; café coffee + -ière, feminine of -ier -ier2; t apparently by analogy with words such as bouquetière flower seller, from bases ending in t) + -ía -ia.

Wiktionary is very loose about the date of origin for cafeteria, but provides a more detailed description of the language origins:

(Mid 19th or 20th century) American Spanish cafetería (“coffeehouse”), from cafetera (“coffee maker”), from French cafetière, from café, from Ottoman Turkish قهوه (kahve) (Turkish kahve), from Arabic قَهْوَة (qahwa, “coffee”).

  • 5
    Yes. This is clearly explained at Etymonline.
    – Davo
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 12:48
  • Chaala good question! Well conceived, well-researched, well presented. Upvote. (In Telugu, which is not my mother-tongue, but my mother's first language, chaala is a commonly used word meaning 'very' -- I know only a very little Telugu, but 'chaala good question' is what we would say colloquially to mean 'very good question!') Commented May 23, 2017 at 6:50

4 Answers 4


YES, the terms derive from Italian caffè

Cafeteria is a more recent AmE term of Spanish influence:

cafe (n.) :

  • 1802, from French café "coffee, coffeehouse," from Italian caffe "coffee" (see coffee).

  • The beverage was introduced in Venice by 1615 and in France from 1650s by merchants and travelers who had been to Turkey and Egypt. The first public café might have been the one opened in Marseilles in 1660.


  • Introduced to England by 1650, and by 1675 the country had more than 3,000 coffee houses. Coffee plantations established in Brazil 1727.

  • Meaning "a light meal at which coffee is served" is from 1774. Coffee break attested from 1952, at first often in glossy magazine advertisements by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau. Coffee pot from 1705.


  • 1839, American English, from Mexican Spanish cafeteria "coffee store," from café "coffee" (see coffee) + Spanish -tería "place where something is done" (usually business).

  • The ending came to be understood popularly as meaning "help-yourself" (as though café + -teria) and was extended to new formation with that sense from c. 1923.


  • 1
    This is a good answer, but I'm unclear on the connection between "cafeteria" and Italian "caffe." I'm assuming the idea is that Spanish "cafe" derives from Italian "caffe?" So Italian --> Spanish --> English "cafeteria" and Italian --> French --> English "cafe?" Commented May 19, 2017 at 13:30
  • 1
    @RaceYouAnytime - it is a Mexican-Spanish influence on AmE in middle 19th century. From Venice the term spread throughout Europe in the 17th century. Then to America via Spanish colonies.
    – user66974
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 13:35
  • 2
    The Southern California supermarket chain Vons began as Von's Groceteria in the '30s, a self-serve, cash-and-carry outfit— relatively rare for a grocer of the era. I knew the outline of the history (having been roommates for a summer with a Von der Ahe), but had never put the -teria and self-serve together.
    – choster
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 14:16
  • 1
    Josh, you should add that explanation into the answer.
    – 1006a
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:34
  • 3
    Re the -teria ending, in my part of the US state of Texas, the establishment that in other parts of the US is called a laundromat is called a washateria/washeteria (or lavandaría/lavandería in the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods). I was surprised to see the Google n-grams results showing usage outside of Texas and as early as 1945.
    – shoover
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 16:52


The origin and history of 'café' in English seems at first blush to be straightforward, well understood and well documented. For example, OED, in an entry not fully updated after its first publication in the 1888 edition, provides this account of the meaning of 'café' and its introduction into English from French:

A coffee-house, a restaurant; strictly a French term, but in the late 19th c. introduced into the English-speaking countries for the name of a class of restaurant. [Emphasis mine.]

Note the "late 19th" century attribution; presumably "late 19th c." means sometime before the 1888 date of first publication. (The previous, 1989 version of the entry uses the same wording; earlier versions of the entry are not available to me.)

OED follows with quotation evidence starting from 1802 (an earlier 1789 quotation is bracketed, indicating the English quotation includes café in French). The entry profile, however, suggests quotation evidence from 1763 ("first cited in Horace Walpole") was at one time part of the entry, but was corrected for the 1989 edition.

The 1802, 1815, and 1851 attestations of 'café' (not italicized) are likely cases OED considered "strictly" French. The 1870 attestation from D.J. Kirwan's Palace & Hovel, an account of an American's visit to London, most likely was not considered "strictly" French.

All that suggests 1870 was the date OED considers 'café' was "introduced" into English with the sense of "a class of restaurant". That date does not antedate the first OED attestation of 'cafeteria' in English, 1839. Nonetheless, the French term café could well have influenced the development of 'cafeteria'; the question is how and when, and whether other language influences were more prominent.


'Cafeteria' has an oddly convoluted and difficult history in English. This history is not credited by OED's treatment, which starts by misdating what they provide as the first attestation, from 1839. Etymology Online perpetuates that misdating to 1839, I surmise, but does not provide the attestation for the 1839 date given, and so is not easily faulted.

cafeteria, n.
Etymology: < American-Spanish cafetería coffee-shop.
orig. U.S.
A coffee-house; a restaurant, esp. now a self-service restaurant.

1839 J. L. Stephens Trav. Russian & Turkish Emp. I. 157 Every third shop, almost, being a cafteria [sic] where a parcel of huge turbanded fellows were at their daily labours of smoking pipes and drinking coffee.

1894 Lakeside Directory Chicago 2188 Cafetiria Catering Co. 45 Lake.


As mentioned, 1839 is not correct; the Stephens work was first serialized in 1836, in The American Monthly Magazine, v. 8. That serialization included several references to 'cafteria' (pp 482-4, 486), the context of which suggests these 'cafteria' were Turkish group lodgings where locals and travelers gathered to smoke, drink coffee, and sleep.

Additionally, but inconsequentially, the later publication of Stephens work in book form took place in 1838 (New York), rather than 1839. In that publication, 'cafteria' appears twice (pp 35, 156), and the context suggests a use in the sense of 'a class of restaurant', that is, the same sense accorded to the later, 1870, English term 'café'.

Antedating 'Cafeteria'

The OED attestation from 1839, and the slightly earlier appearances of 'cafeteria' in works by the same author are not, however, the earliest appearances of the term in English. Earlier appearances suggest the word entered English not from American-Spanish, but rather from Spanish or Italian (Castel Nuovo is in Naples, Italy).

In The Eclectic Review of 1833, this mention is made:

...the Spaniard's lemonade is tasteless unless he can sip it in the accustomed Caffeteria...

And in The London Literary Gazette of 1829, in an exerpt from an 1828 work (Reisen in Egypten, &c. Travels in Egypt, Libya, Nubia, and Dongola, Between the Years 1820-1825, W.F. Hemprich and C.G. Ehrenberg), this:

...nor can I ever forget the five living Rolandos whom I saw standing in the caffeteria of Castel Nuovo...

Although neither of the attestations provides enough context to reliably ascertain the nature of the Spanish or Italian 'caffeteria', it seems clear that such were, generally, coffeehouses or "a class of" restaurants.

These attestations demonstrate that 'caffeteria' was in use in British English, with a sense at least similar to 'café', before it was adopted from American-Spanish into US English and began its progress toward the contemporary sense of 'self-service restaurant'.

Another Consideration

Noting the 55 (or more accurately, 58) year gap between the first and second OED attestations, I made shift to fill it. This was not so easily accomplished.

In an 1870 work, Italy: Handbook for Travellers, by K. Bædeker, I found this, where 'Caffeteria' is obviously Italian, in the section listing establishments of interest to tourists in Bologna:

Cafés. ...Beer: Birraria e Caffeteria della Ditta Neviani in the side passage of the Piazza, E. of S. Petronio...

Cafeteria in US English

I found no uses of 'cafeteria' (or variants) in British or US English between 1839 and 1894. Numerous uses of 'cafetiere', meaning coffeepot, do appear, but do not seem on point for this answer.

Looking at the 1894 uses of 'cafeteria' did provide some interesting background, although the credibility of the claims made by the complainant in this March, 1894 newspaper article (The Inter Ocean, Chicago, Illinois, p 10; paywalled) has been undermined by the foregoing attestations of 'caffeteria' in English, possibly Spanish, and Italian:

John Kroger, the proprietor of the "Cafeteria" Catering Company, has filed a bill in the Circuit Court to restrain W. H. Dittmer from using the name "Cafetier" in connection with the latter's restaurant. The bill says that the complainant adopted the name "Cafeteria" as a fanciful and arbitrary name for his business, although he says that the word has no descriptive meaning, and is not found in any language.

Also of passing interest is this April, 1894 (The Worthington Advance, Worthington, Minnesota, p 6; paywalled) description, which makes plain that the sense of 'cafeteria' as "a self-service restaurant" has been established:

These new places are called cafetiria, or cafetier, or cafelakota, or buffetiria, or some other meaningless variation on a common name, and their motto is every man is his own waiter.


What seems to be missing from all the other answers is the meaning of the suffix -eria.

In Italian, the -eria suffix can mean "a place connected with". So a pizzeria sells pizza and a gelateria sells gelato.

In Spanish, the -ería suffix means "a place that sells something." So a heladería is an ice cream parlor and a florería is a florist.

So cafetería (in Spanish) etymologically means a place you could buy and drink coffee. I don't know why there's an extra "t" in it; that is, why isn't it simply cafería. It may be because cafetera means coffee-pot in Spanish. Wiktionary thinks the extra "t" in cafetera was influenced by the "t" in tetera (teapot). And presumably there's an extra "t" in tetera because you te is a one-syllable word in Spanish, so you need to add a consonant when you add the suffix -era.

  • What is puzzling, though, is how the word cafeteria in English ended up standing for restaurants of that particular kind (casual, self-service, usually provided by an employer or a school to its employees/students).
    – jsw29
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 16:20
  • @jsw29: It's not clear to me how much of this meaning change happened in Spanish and how much in English. The second definition in Spanish Wiktionary is restaurante de autoservicio — self-service restaurant. (Whereas the first definition seems to be more or less synonymous with coffee shop.) Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 13:58

Brazil exports coffee to England since the XVI century, maybe some portuguese words can be helpful to understand the question:

Cafezal: Coffee plantation (where farmers work)

Café da manhã: breakfast (which includes café)

Cafeteria: place where the workers eat, including "café da manhã"

Cafeteira: coffee jar

As a Portuguese speaker, all these words seem totally related.

  • Hi, and welcome to ELU. Please take the tour and consider how you might improve your answer. As it stands, this sounds like opinion. Can you link to references that support your answer?
    – Davo
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 13:51
  • An analogy with another language may sometimes illuminate an aspect of English, but an answer which invokes such an analogy needs to make it explicit how it does that.
    – jsw29
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 15:56

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