meaning and early instances of ‘to wake up and smell the coffee’

Frequently used in the imperative, the self-explanatory phrase to wake up and smell the coffee means to face up to the realities of an unpleasant situation.

The earliest recorded occurrence of the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary (Draft additions – December 2005) is from the following paragraph, published in the Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of Monday 18th January 1943; a reader named Guy Finamore played on the figurative and literal meanings of the phrase:

Rationing Dept.

A few years back, when a wife told her husband to “wake up and smell the coffee,” it usually was said in utter derision. Now, when there is coffee to smell, she shouts it to him in supreme delight.

I have, however, found earlier instances of the phrase.

The earliest is from the following letter, published in the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) of Saturday 4th June 1927:

“SMELLING THE COFFEE”

Editor Beacon Journal:
In this evening’s edition of your paper the statement is made that a woman black-mailer “gained prominence” through filing a breach of promise suit.
Also that she had twice attempted to commit suicide and had finally succeeded.
Allow me to request that you look into the use of the word “prominence” in connection with such a person and such a life.
Rather think you will find that “notorious” and “notoriety” are the correct words to use.
Prominence refers to high-principled worth-while deeds and accomplishments. Lindbergh, for instance, gained prominence and fame.
This unfortunate woman moron gained notoriety.
Your paper gains “notice” as an example of the use of English as it should not be written nor spoken.
Wake up and smell the coffee.
                                                                                                                                         “PURIST.”

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from A Home Talk Baseball League Umpire Writes In His Worries, by Eric Wroldsen, published in Lou E. Cohen’s column Sport Chats, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) of Wednesday 18th July 1934:

“To sum up some of the remarks heard from the sidelines when not immune would fill this column—but the most prevalent and popular ones seem to be, ‘Oh, you robber!’ ‘Give him the hook!’ and ‘Wake up and smell the coffee.’”

illustration for A Home Talk Baseball League Umpire Writes In His WorriesBrooklyn Daily Eagle (New York) – 18th July 1934:

baseball umpire - Brooklyn Daily Eagle (New York) - 18 July 1934

The phrase was popularised by the American advice columnist Ann Landers*, who often used it when making recommendations to her correspondents; so much so that some people wondered whether she had coined it—as illustrated by the following from The New Mexican (Santa Fe, New Mexico) of Sunday 8th February 1987:

Dear Ann Landers: “Wake up and smell the coffee” has become part of American English. Was it original with you?—G.P. in U.S. Virgin Islands
Dear G.P.: I answered this once before but I’m happy to do so again. I picked up that line from Mrs. Jay Phillips of Minneapolis, the mother-in-law of my twin sister, Dear Abby.

* Ann Landers was the pseudonym, from 1955 to 2002, of Esther Pauline Lederer (née Friedman – 1918-2002).

There have been numerous variants of the phrase. Ann Landers herself, for example, jocularly used a nonce expression when replying to the criticism of a “An Angry Chiropractic Student in Texas”—the following is from The Messenger (Madisonville, Kentucky) of Tuesday 4th October 1983:

Dear Ann Landers: You claim to know a phony letter when you see it. Well, I think someone put one over on you recently […]. It was from the 18-year-old unwed mother of twins who was caught with a married man by his wife. She posed as a chiropractor and ended up giving the wife a treatment.
You must be extremely naive to believe that anyone could masquerade as a chiropractor — or any health professional, for that matter — and get away with it. […] An Angry Chiropractic Student in Texas
Dear Angry Student: […] Your letter led me to dozens of incredible news stories about people who have successfully posed as physicians and gotten away with it for several years. So wake up and smell the rubbing alcohol, chiropractor of tomorrow. It is you who is naive, not me.

One of the variants is to wake up and smell the decaf (coffee). The earliest instance that I have found is from Mother’s Day 1987: Today’s operative word is ‘choices’, by Deborah Fineblum Raub, published in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) of Sunday 10th May 1987:

Dear old Mom. A sweet woman with a heart of gold and an angelic smile and wearing a wide apron of white cotton. In her kitchen cookies bake while dumplings simmer in stew on the stove. When troubles arise, she’s always there to listen and let you know, without equivocation, that everything’s going to be all right.
Well, it’s time to wake up and smell the decaf, bub. It’s 1987 and Mom’s kitchen today may well include a microwave oven, a freezer stuffed with TV dinners and a snack counter for meals on the run.
And there’s not a dumpling for miles.

The earliest occurrence of to wake up and smell the tea that I have found is from You For Tea? It’s An Eye-Opener And A Money-Saver, by Sharon M. Reynolds, published in the Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky) of Monday 17th January 1977:

Tea: the ageless panacea for the tired, weary traveler, ailing children and seekers of conviviality. One does not use tea to “replace” anything. One discovers it.
The health food fad helped Americans “discover” herb teas, and now the near-prohibitive cost of the all-American cup of java has caused many to wake up and smell the tea.

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