Smell the coffee?

中国日报网 2014-01-24 11:38



Smell the coffee?

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: “It was only until I read the news report myself that I was forced to smell the coffee.” Smell the coffee?

My comments:

Well, the speaker uses “smell the coffee” as a metaphor. Apparently nobody’s pinning both the speaker’s arms back and forcing his head down to the edge of a cup of warm coffee, forcing him to say that he likes its aroma.

Here, the speaker simply means to say that the news report tells him something he didn’t know, perhaps some unpleasant news, something he’d been unwilling to accept. Now he has to accept it, now that he’s forced to smell the coffee.

“Smell the coffee” is shortened from the American idiom “Wake up and smell the coffee”. Picture an American family having coffee at breakfast. The mother, after putting everything, cereals, bread and butter on the dining table discovers one of the boys missing – he’s still slumbering in bed. Coaxing the boy to get up, she might very well say something like: “Wake up to smell the delicious coffee”. Naturally she is hoping the aroma of the coffee will attract the boy’s attention. By saying that, she might also be telling the boy it is broad day light, time to get up and find out what’s on the table for breakfast – as well as what’s going on in the wider world.

Whether this is the origin of the expression I know not. Doesn’t matter. It sounds quite plausible, though, doesn’t it?

Anyways, by extension and as a metaphor, people say “wake up and smell the coffee” to tell others to wake up to certain facts that they’re unaware of or are reluctant to face.

In short, “smell the coffee” means: face the facts.

No more ado, here are media examples to hammer the point home:

1. After the Tory defeat in the 2005 general election, Michael Ashcroft published an analysis called ‘Smell the coffee: a wake up call for the Conservative party’. In the introduction he argued that “the Conservative party’s problem is its brand…the brand problem means that the most robust, coherent, principled and attractive Conservative policies will have no impact on the voters”.

Labour needs to ‘smell the coffee’ now and not wait for three election defeats. New polling shows the Labour party’s brand is in toxic territory. Ashcroft realised that policy is nothing without presentation and presentation is nothing without policy. Labour now has a problem with both.

- It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, argues Richard Darlington,, August 5, 2010.

2. Joseph Muscat would not say yesterday if his government’s plan to deport a group of Somalis back to Libya was simply an act of provocation, saying only that “he wanted Europe to wake up and smell the coffee”.

Speaking live on the international news network Al Jazeera, Dr Muscat said his government was merely exploring “all options” as he made the case that Malta felt abandoned by the international community and especially the EU on the immigration issue.

“There is a feeling among people in my country that we have been abandoned,” he said, pointing out that as he was speaking some 160 migrants were being rescued. Earlier, 68 were brought ashore and in the evening another three boats were intercepted, bringing to 280 the number brought in yesterday.

Asked by Al Jazeera whether the Government’s plan was simply an act of provocation, Dr Muscat dodged the question and stuck to the same line.

“When left on your own and are faced with years and years of empty talk... you consider all options,” he said, adding that Malta had always met its international obligation to rescue people at sea.

Europe was quick to rescue Greek banks and Malta had contributed a “massive three per cent of the GDP” to that effort, so the EU “should also be quick on the rescue of people”.

- ‘We wanted Europe to smell the coffee’,, July 11, 2013.

3. Silicon Valley has launched a last-ditch attempt to derail plans devised by the G20 group of countries to close down international loopholes that are exploited by the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple to pay less tax in the UK and elsewhere.

The Digital Economy Group, a lobbying group dominated by the leading US digital firms, has written to the OECD, the Paris-based thinktank tasked by G20 leaders with drawing up reforms, saying it is not true that communications advances have allowed multinational groups to game national tax systems.

Suggesting that any leakage of tax revenues flowing from the complex corporate structures of digital groups is merely coincidental, the Digital Economy Group says: “Enterprises that employ digital communications models do not organize their business operations differently as a legal or tax matter.”

Their denial of tax engineering follows a string of tax scandals in Europe and the US in the past two years. In the UK, Google bore the brunt of criticism from Margaret Hodge, who chairs the public accounts committee, after it emerged that Google – which the Guardian understands is a member of the DEG – had been allowed to pay £3.4 million in tax to HMRC in 2012 despite UK revenues of £3.2 billion.

Above all the DEG letter insists international tax rules should not be altered specifically to target digital companies, a move it says would be penalizing their operational innovation. “We believe that [digital] enterprises operating long-standing business models, subject to established international tax rules, should not become subject to altered rules on the basis that they have adopted more efficient means of operation.”

Sol Picciotto, a Lancaster University law professor, said the DEG’s stance was hard to sustain. “I don’t think you could fairly say that they don’t organise their business differently [to secure tax advantages] … I don’t think it’s true … It’s rubbish.”

The DEG paper and other submissions to the OECD have been published in advance of a progress update from the thinktank on Thursday. The update comes amid concern the political will for tackling tax avoidance by online and hi-tech groups is fading. Reform had been a hot topic at the World Economic Forum in Davos this time last year but, as business and political leaders reconvene this week, it is not expected to feature prominently.

Twelve months ago, David Cameron was among the most outspoken critics of multinational tax avoidance. “Some forms of avoidance have become so aggressive that I think it is right to say these are ethical issues and it is time to call for more responsibility and for governments to act accordingly,” he told an audience at Davos last January. “This is an issue whose time has come … [Multinational companies should] wake up and smell the coffee.”

He is not expected to return to the topic this week. One source close to No 10 said Cameron believed Britain’s presidency of the G8 last year had scored successes elsewhere on tax policy – specifically in the battle against individuals using offshore havens for evasion – so there was no need to return to the subject of corporate tax, which is handled by the G20.

- US tech firms make eleventh-hour attempt to halt tax avoidance reforms, The Guardian, January 19, 2014.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)




















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