A Tea By Any Other Name

The Road to Tea Time begins 3,500 years ago, in the extremely rugged mountains of southern China, not terribly far from either Burma or India. It is there that a plant is identified and first cultivated for its medicinal properties. Because it is so bitter is it called, “te”, or perhaps “tu”, meaning simply, “bitter plant.”

The use of the tea plant remains primarily medicinal for more than a thousand years. The first reliable records of tea being consumed simply as a beverage come in the second and third centuries BC.  By this time, tea consumption has spread throughout China and into neighboring regions in Asia. And it is this slow geographic spread that leads not only to differing treatment of tea– different methods utilized to grow the plant, to harvest the leaves and to prepare them for use, but to linguistic divergence as well.

In the present day, tea is know by three main names: “tea” in English and many other languages, “cha” in Chinese, Japanese and Korean among many other languages (including English), and “chai” notably in Russian, a number of other central Asian languages, a variety of African languages and...English.  What goes around comes, literally, around– at least when it comes to the common names used for the beverage brewed from the leaves of Camellia Sinensis.

It has been said that the United States and England are two great nations, divided by a common language – the implicit joke being that the two versions of English aren’t the same at all. Bear that concept in mind and consider the geography of China over the last several thousand years – it could not have been better designed to promote linguistic separation and isolation, leading to a panoply of languages, many mutually unintelligible.

Because of this geographic influence, two linguistically distinct words for tea – “te” from the port city of Xiamen in Fujian Province migrated to Europe, while “chah” from the port city of Guangzhou/Canton in Guangdong Province spread to India and other regions, taken by tea traders to every point in the known world. The Mandarin Chinese pronunciation “cha” moved overland to central Asia and Persia, where it became “chai” before migrating further still into the languages of Russia, Turkey and beyond.

Though variations abound, wherever one travels asking for tea-cha-chai should result in comprehension though it should be added that “your results may vary.” Remember too that not only does tea go by a variety of names, but that the concept of tea itself is somewhat, ah, fluid. The customs surrounding the preparation of tea can be every bit as varied as the names by which it goes.