So what does the opening of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats have to do with the world’s largest chain of coffee shops?
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither’d from the lake.
And no birds sing.
Give up? I thought so. The connection is in the sedge.
Sedge is any kind of plant that grows on the banks of a lake or stream. More recently its meaning has dwindled to refer to plants of the cyperaceae family; and, really, unless you’re a water-vole, the only place that you’ll have heard of it is in the Keats poem.
This takes us to a suburb of Harrogate in Yorkshire with a small stream flowing through it.The suburb’s name is Sedge-stream, except it’s not. Yorkshire was, a thousand and a bit years ago, overrun by Vikings, so most of their place names are Scandinavian, and the Viking word for Sedge-stream is Star-beck.
Starbeck is only recorded from 1817 but it must have been around before because a) It has a Viking name and b) there were people there who had sex as early as 1379. This sex produced families, and those families were called, by a slight alteration in the name, Starbuck. Since 1379 two things have happened: the Quaker movement was founded and America was discovered.
The result of this double-catastrophe was that among the first settlers on Nantucket Island was a Quaker family called Starbuck. Nantucket was a centre of the whaling industry and the Starbucks took up their harpoons and set off to seek their oily fortunes at sea. Valentine Starbuck met the King and Queen of Hawaii and took them to London where they got measles and died. Obed Starbuck sighted a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific which was later named Starbuck Island in Valentine’s honour. The point is that the Starbucks were famous whalers, which brings us to Moby Dick.
Moby Dick is about a bunch of sailors having a whale of a time (whale, in case you were wondering, was early C20th American slang for a lot – whale of a job etc). The first mate of the whaling ship Pequod is called Starbuck, because the Starbucks were such prominent whalers. Moby Dick, aside from having a vaguely amusing name, is a favourite with American schoolteachers, which brings us to Jerry Baldwin.
Jerry Baldwin was an English teacher from Seattle, who in 1971, along with a couple of friends, decided to start a coffee shop. He wanted to name it Pequod, after the ship in Moby Dick but was shouted down by his partners who pointed out that Pee is not a good syllable to have in a shop selling liquids.
So the others cast around for a local name and found that there was an abandoned mining town near Mount Ranier called Camp Starbo. At this point Jerry Baldwin piped up and suggested a compromise. If he couldn’t have Pequod, what about Starbucks,which sounds a little like Starbo and is a character in Moby Dick. They decided that this was a good name, and the rest is bad coffee.
And it all goes back to a sedge-covered stream in Yorkshire.