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Talking Tea: The Origins of Three Tea Phrases

January 25, 2008


“Thanks, but that’s not my cup of tea.” You’ve probably heard this phrase before. In fact, you may use it in daily conversation. But where did the expression originate? We recently went in search of the history behind this and other tea expressions.

The phrase “not your cup of tea” means that something is “not to your liking.” According to the Translation Dictionary the expression got its start in the late 1800s when Brits, when referring to the popular drink, began saying that something they liked was their “cup of tea.” But time changes things. Later, probably sometime in the 1920s, the expression took a twist to indicate the opposite.

What about “tempest in a teapot?” Michael Quinion of Worldwide Words, is more familiar with the British version of this colloquialism, “storm in a teacup.” “Either way,” he says “it’s a delightful phrase for a fuss about nothing very much, or a dispute of only minor or local importance.” The American variation seems to be older, at least a century and a half old with the earliest example found in a long-defunct journal called The United States Democratic Review of January 1838 about the Supreme Court.

“Not for all the tea in China” is another well worn expression. The idiom is used to stress that the deed in question would not be performed for any price. Writers at the Human Flower Project say it was first used in Australia in the 1890s and “recalls that tea was initially a rich person’s drink in Europe. When the East India Tea Company first brought tea to Holland, it cost $100 per pound.”

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