Why I don’t use the word “Roya” when I mean Coffee Rust.
I don’t want to appear critical or persnickety about this, I really don’t. And some may see this as a tiny triviality; ridiculous to even mention when the problem of coffee rust is so huge and is affecting so many people. I accept these criticisms, but nevertheless I think it is important enough to write about.
When speaking English some people use the word “roya” when speaking about Coffee Leaf Rust, or Hemileia vastatrix. Roya is the word in Spanish for “rust” (both the kind that affects metal and the kind that infects plants), and therefore, Spanish-speaking coffee farmers use the word when talking about the disease. Why has it become popular to use the word roya instead of rust by English speakers in the middle of an otherwise English sentence? I’m not sure, but let me explain why I think it is a bad idea.
But first, some history: coffee leaf rust was first identified in the 1860s in Ceylon by the (English-speaking) Reverend H.J. Berkely, and correctly placed in the order Pucciniales, with the group of fungi called “rusts”. As we learned from Dr. Mary Catherine Aime at the recent Symposium, rusts are among the oldest known crop pathogens- wheat rust was known even to the ancient Egyptians! Anyway, its Latin name became Hemileia vastatrix, (after the half-smooth appearance of its spores, and the vast effect on coffee plantations). Its common name remained Coffee Leaf Rust, and this is the name by which it has been called since then. When translated into local languages, it’s usually just to translate “rust” into that language: “rouille” for example, the French word for both metal-rust and coffee leaf rust.
This brings to mind my first objection to the word roya in English sentences. It’s a rule of thumb when speaking a language that you should use words of that language unless there is a better word in another language. This helps with clarity. For example, if I am talking about Sicilian bread in general, I use the word “bread” not “pane”. However, if there is a kind of bread for which there is no translation- sfincione, for example- I should use that untranslatable word. Using the Sicilian word in this case correctly identifies that bread as a uniquely Sicilian thing, which does not exist anywhere else. It is completely restricted to one locale, and therefore has only one word for it- in its local language.
And this is my larger objection to the use of the word roya when talking about coffee leaf rust. Coffee rust is the most destructive coffee pathogen in the world. It wiped out the coffee industries of Ceylon and Java in the 19th century, and still affects crops in Indonesia. It’s present in Africa as well, where it is in fact indigenous. This is a universal disease with a global impact.
When we use the word “roya” in an otherwise English sentence, we localize this problem in Spanish-speaking Latin America. Perhaps subconsciously, we are saying “This is a Latin American disease with a Spanish name.” In this way, we distance ourselves from the problem, implying it is a foreign disease with a non-English moniker. We also incorrectly imply that there is something special about Latin American coffee rust that makes it different. It’s not different. It’s the same exact fungus that plagues coffee farmers worldwide. It’s a global problem, that touches all of us.
I have no doubt this is unintentional. I know that most of my comrades use “roya” because it was in the Spanish language that they first heard of the disease, or because they are trying to express solidarity with Spanish-speaking coffee farmers by using their word for the fungus. But language is important- and it speaks volumes. By speaking of coffee rust in our mother tongue, we express that it is our problem too; that it is universal and important and personal. And that’s why I always call the villain by its name, coffee leaf rust.