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the Words for Tea

March 26, 2008


The Chinese character for “tea” (”cha”)

Have you ever wondered why, when most of the major tea-growing regions of the world, including China, where the tea plant was originally cultivated, all use some variant of the word “cha” to indicate tea and the plant that it comes from, almost all of the Western countries call it “tea” or variants of that word?

Chinese (Mandarin): cha
Japan: cha
Persia: cha
Arabic: chai
Turkish: chay
Russian: chai
Indian: cha
Sri Lankan: cha
Pakistani: cha
Bangladesh: cha

English: tea
German: tee
French: thé

As is the case with many linguistic riddles, the answer lies along trade routes. The British established trade posts in Xiamen, in the Fujian Province of China, during the Ming Dynasty, mid-seventeenth century. In Xiamen, the word approximately pronounced “tay” is used rather than the Mandarin “cha.” The British spelled it “tea,” which splintered off into the words “thé” in France and “tee” in Germany.

In contrast, the word “char” is a common slang term for tea in Britain, which most likely emerged out of 19th and 20th century British Imperialism.


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