Tea, By Any Other Name

Tea, or some variation of it, is the word used to describe a beverage made from the leaves of Camellia Sinensis in many languages. In other parts of the world cha and chai are used instead. Have you ever wondered why that is? Chá, or 茶, is the word for tea in both Mandarin and Cantonese. Where it evolved from there had a lot to do with where we got our tea from.

The Portuguese were among the first Europeans to purchase tea in bulk from China. They primarily traded from the Cantonese-speaking port of Macao. Tibet, Mongolia, and Russia first encountered tea through caravans over land and so acquired the word chá in much the same fashion. This then evolved into chây or chai in many other languages spoken around the world. The Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza is often credited with popularizing tea drinking among England’s upper class after she married King Charles II.

“Macao, View of Two Bays, ca. 1830” Unknown Chinese artist Peabody Essex Museum

Dutch traders, on the other hand, most likely encountered the word tê directly through merchants in Fujian Province. The port of Amoy (modern-day Xiamen) would have spoken the Amoy dialect of Southern Minnan Chinese at the time. It was the Dutch who first brought tea to England and even as far away as New Amsterdam, the colonial settlement that would eventually become New York. For this reason, the Min derivative was retained even when England later began trading directly with Canton (modern-day Guangzhou).

View of Table Bay with ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), c. 1683.

Of course, there are always outliers that don’t seem to follow the same path as most other languages. The word for tea in Polish is herbata. It is believed to be derived from a combination of the Latin herba (herb) and Chinese chá. Interestingly, the Polish word for tea kettle is czajnik. The pronunciation is actually quite similar to chai, though! In Burma, the word laphet represents both tea that is drunk as well as tea leaves that are pickled and then eaten. The Chippewa, or Okibwe, word for tea is the seemingly completely unrelated aniibiishaaboo.

A note about chai: It does, in fact, mean tea. When we order a chai tea at Starbucks, we’re technically asking for tea tea. In North America, the word has become synonymous with black tea that is blended with masala spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.

Infographic created by Reddit user Bezbojnicul

This article originally appeared in Volume 12 of Tea for Me Please Quarterly. Sign up using the form below to receive informative tea articles four times a year. 

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