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From teaspoons to tea-sots: the language of tea

Tea was first imported into Britain early in the seventeenth century, becoming very popular by the 1650s. The London diarist Samuel Pepys drank his first cup in 1660, as recorded in his famous diary: “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before.” The word tea derives ultimately from the Mandarin Chinese word chá, via the Min dialect form te. The Mandarin word is also the origin of the informal word char, heard today in phrases like a nice cup of char. The Chinese origin of the plant is remembered in the idiom not for all the tea in China, meaning “certainly not,” “not at any price,” which originated in Australian slang of the 1890s.

By the eighteenth century, tea had become a symbol of fashionable society and a staple of the coffee house culture. Samuel Johnson was a self-confessed “hardened and shameless tea-drinker…whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.” As tea-drinking developed into an elaborate social ritual, so did the associated paraphernalia. From the eighteenth century we find references to tea-spoons, tea-boxes, tea-tongs, tea-kitchens (similar to a modern tea-urn), tea-caddies (from catty, a unit of weight, ultimately derived from Malay kati); sets comprising cups, saucers, tea-pots, and other essentials were known as tea-equipage, or rather more prosaically as tea-things, or tea-services (as they still are today). The trade in growing, selling, and administering tea created a need for tea-growers, tea-sifters, and tea-ladies (nowadays associated with a tea-trolley and tea-urn); the grandest ceremonies were overseen by a tea-hostess or tea-master to ensure proper etiquette was observed.

Users and dealers

The large sums of money involved in the importing of this luxury commodity prompted efforts to regulate the trade, resulting in tea-tax, tea-duty, and tea-broker. The Boston Tea Party of 1773, when British tea was offloaded from ships into Boston harbour in protest at taxation, is the inspiration behind the name of the US Republican Tea Party movement; although some commentators have interpreted this as a backronym (an unhistorical explanation of a word’s origin) for “Taxed Enough Already.” Historical terms like tea-user and tea-dealer resemble the lexicon of today’s illicit drug trade, while in modern US slang a tea-head refers to someone who regularly smokes marijuana and a tea-pad to a drugs den.

The drinking of tea became such an established feature of English social life that we find references to tea-breakfasts, tea-soirées, tea-picnics, tea-visits, tea-dinners, and even tea-fights (a slang term for a tea-party rather than a bun-fight). A great frequenter of such events, assumed to be acting from disreputable motives, was known as a tea-hound. The light refreshment taken in the afternoon is still known as tea, although in some parts (particularly in Northern England) this is now used to refer to the evening meal. But how many households retain the tea-bell, used to summon the family to assemble at the appointed hour? A love of tea is so ingrained in British life that the phrase cup of tea has come to stand for anything viewed positively. In the 1930s, what interested someone was termed their tea; today we are more likely to express our dislike for something by saying: it’s not my cup of tea. When someone is distressed or bereaved, we console them with tea and sympathy, a phrase taken from the title of a 1950s film.

More tea, vicar?

The dangers of excessive tea-drinking are apparent from tea-sot (sot is an archaic word for a drunken fool) and tea-drunkard: “one who habitually drinks tea to such excess as to suffer from its toxic effects.” To be described as tea-faced implied a “sallow or effeminate countenance like one addicted to tea-drinking.” Over-consumption of tea can also be a source of flatulence, as suggested by the origins of the expression “More tea Vicar?” used to cover the embarrassment prompted by some social faux pas. This phrase is supposed to originate in an effort to fill an awkward silence caused by a vicar breaking wind at a tea-party: “More tea vicar?” the genteel hostess asked in a deft attempt to save the clergyman’s blushes. But the vicar—unversed in the niceties of social etiquette—responded bluntly: “No thank you, it makes me fart.”

A version of this blog post originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Tea Time with Mooncake Pt. II” by Laura D’Alessandro. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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