Etymology has always been fascinating for me; I often wonder how the things we enjoy daily got their slang equivalents. For instance, did you know that the term “cup of Joe” we use for coffee has at least four origin stories? My favorite one is because a group of disgruntled sailors coined it to mock then Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels for banning alcohol consumption in their ships.
The same goes for tea. In places outside the English-speaking countries, it is known as cha, chai, or teh and the official name, along with the slang, evolved from there.
1. Tea Tastes Bitter
Tea was initially called “tu” which means bitter vegetable. Tu is an array of medicinal herbs that the Chinese used as early as 2000 BC.
It was only during the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century when the renowned writer and tea master Lu Yu wrote the Classics of Tea and added an extra horizontal stroke on the tu Chinese character to create the word te or what we now know as tea. Interestingly enough, tea got many names because of how people vocalized the Chinese character.
2. Tea Was Pronounced Differently By The Locals
Predominant Chinese languages, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, pronounce the word as cha. However, people that reside along China’s southern coast, where varieties of Min Chinese are the widely-used language, pronounce the word as te.
The dissimilarity in the pronunciation, along with the opening of trade routes to allow the exportation of tea, is why the name varies across different parts of the world.
Check out our Lipton tea guide.
3. The Tea Traders Helped Spread The Word
The Portuguese were the first importers of tea and received most of their supply from their trading posts located in Macau, a Cantonese-speaking region of China. Given this, they adopted the word cha to trade the tea leaves in Asian, European, and African countries, although the latter have since created their own tea as well after the introduction of the Camellia Sinensis.
Interestingly enough, cha may have been the reason why some British people still use the word char to refer to tea, although the “r” at the end was arguably a result of the intrusive “r” that became part of a proportion of the British population’s manner of speaking.
On-land trade routes such as the Silk Road also paved the way for the proliferation as well, as the cha is still the word for tea in North and West Asia and the Middle East. In fact, the Persian word chai or chay was thought to have originated from China’s northern regions.
The Dutch were no pushovers as well, as they became the major importers of tea at the start of the 17th century. Depending on where their trade ports are located, they will either adopt te or cha.
As they became the main source of tea in England and most of the Western European countries, the Dutch word thee became the widely accepted name which has since been adopted by the British and the French, among others. This can also explain why some of the Dutch’s former colonies in Southeast Asia and South Africa still use the word.
Are There Any Other Names For Tea?
In the United Kingdom alone, there are many colloquial words for the beverage.
First is cuppa, which is just a contracted form for the words cup of tea. Contrary to popular belief, this is a fairly young slang term and was first cited by renowned writer Dame Ngaio Marsh in her detective novel titled A Man Lay Dead in 1934.
Another one is Rosie Lee, a Cockney rhyming slang for tea with undetermined origins, though some argue that it was inspired by the famous American burlesque artist named Gypsy Rose Lee. On the other hand, tea is called brew in some parts of Northern England.
For the laborers, a builder or a builder’s brew is what you would call a strong cuppa. It is a colloquial term that is mostly used by the working class in Great Britain and Ireland.
Interestingly, the word tea has also evolved in this digital age, as Gen-Zs use it to pertain to gossip. In any case, you might want to hold off on spilling the tea.
You might also be interested in learning which teas are not herbal.