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“Real” Tea?

July 11, 2019

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“I need a cup of tea,” my friend Roy sighed, “a cup of REAL tea!”

Perhaps it was the emphasis on the word real that piqued his companion’s interest.  “What’s up with that?” she asked, “You dry any leaves, stems, flowers, whatever; put them in hot water for a couple minutes and you have tea, right?”

Instead of correcting Pam on her common assumption that any plant material steeped in water is “tea”, I reflected on my career as an English and speech communication teacher.  American English contains misconstructions that are so prevalent in daily speech that virtually every listener understands the speaker perfectly, although the word combination is confusing to the English language learner.  The phrase “I could care less,” comes to mind. Given the tone of voice and the discussion at hand, the language learner is confused because the nonverbal cues indicate the speaker clearly couldn’t care less.  Another misusage that has gained locomotive momentum is the adverb literally.  An acquaintance moans, “I was literallyclimbing the walls!” This writer will wager a 100-gram cake of the finest pu’erh that you will NEVER hear “How was the view on top of the wall?”  Native speakers understand that the speaker was restless and bored so that she was figuratively climbing the walls. Imagine what all the waiting rooms in America would look like if every person who said they were climbing the walls literallydid just that?  Foam floors, hand- and foot-holds in the wall . . . 

But I digress.

“So,” Roy fixes his steely gaze on me, “you’re the tea geek.  Real tea is like the real thing and that other stuff is herbal tea, right?”  Before I answered, I thought again of the vagaries of language and if this one – tea as a generic term for all hot beverages made with steeped plant material – was in the same class.  It’s all in the adjectives, right? Chamomile, spearmint, raspberry leaf, rose hips, licorice root, clover blossom, black, green, oolong. . . followed by the noun tea. I decided to settle for the short answer, lest I provoke that glazed-over want-to-climb-the-walls look of terminal boredom.

Realtea geeks consider only the leaves, buds, and stems of camellia sinensis as tea.  All the herbal concoctions are tisanes, also referred to as ‘herbal tea.’ ”  Basking in my newfound powers of brevity for just a moment or two, I couldn’t help but wonder: Does it matter that the term tea has become generic?  Is it a matter of education?

“Now, would you like real tea, Roy?  And perhaps a tisane for you, Pam?” I opened a fresh parcel of Doke Black Fusion and laid out an assortment of Stash tisanes as the water reached a boil.  One cup at a time.

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