What is half-and-half?
In much of the world half-and-half refers to various alcoholic drinks containing a mixture of two drinks. But in the United States, the only country you can typically order a breve, it refers to a mixture of half milk and half cream.
Origins of the breve
It's hard to work out when people started using the word breve to mean espresso with half-and-half — but people have been putting cream in their coffee since cream and coffee existed. We found a reference to heavy cream being put in coffee in 19241 and the first reference we can find for half-and-half in coffee is from 1963.2
The first usage we can find of the term "breve" directly referencing coffee with steamed half-and-half comes from a 1990 article about Tony's Coffee House in Bellingham, Washington.3
While we don't know exactly where the term comes from it is likely that it was adopted during the late 80s as a way of marketing Italian style coffee to Americans. Around the same time Breve became a popular term, other Italian words grew in popularity to describe coffee — particularly by Starbucks, e.g. venti and grande.
Breve means short or brief in Italian. So it makes sense as a description for a drink made of cream. Cream is too rich to drink in large quantities. This makes it all the more ridiculous that you can now order a Venti breve cappuccino at Starbucks — 20oz of cream with a shot of espresso. Yikes.