“I don’t understand Americans,” an acquaintance of mine from the Mainland said, shaking his head, sipping a cup of oolong from Wuyi Mountain. “They boil herbs and call it ‘tea.'”
Of course he’s referring to that odd phenomenon, “herbal teas.” And he’s right. It’s weird. While I generally agree with my linguistically inclined friend that usage determines meaning, I hope he will forgive my one-time indulgence in prescriptive stuffiness: Calling something “tea” that isn’t tea just doesn’t make sense. It’s like filtering hot water through ground roasted peanuts and calling it coffee.
“It’s a legume coffee. No caffeine!”
Sorry, but that’s not coffee. It sounds like something that might be worth a try. It actually reminds me of a really good peanut drink I had in China. But it’s not coffee. Slapping “legume” onto it doesn’t help.
According to the China History Podcast, we can credit Dutch traders with the word “tea.” It was a corruption of “tu,” the ancient Chinese word, not for flavored hot beverages in general, but for the Camellia sinensis plant. And that’s why this matters: Apart from its scientific name, Camellia sinensis doesn’t have an alternate English name. If we started calling any plant that gave off scent or flavor “lavender,” then after a while, only a handful of people would even know what “lavender” is.
So by calling things “tea” that aren’t, English-speakers have ended up clueless about what tea actually is, and why there seems to be so many varieties. Until recently, I personally didn’t know that white tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea, and pu’er are all just differently processed manifestations of the same Camellia sinensis leaf.
I’ve spent most of my life disliking tea. I didn’t understanding why anyone cared about it. Tea seemed to be anything that grew out of the ground that you might throw in your cup, and it ranged from passable to disgusting.
But now that I’ve had a variety of real teas, I finally get it. And, when I try to get other people to get it too, the second biggest obstacle to overcome is confusion about what “tea” actually is. (The biggest obstacle is to convince them that the tea bag was not a good idea.)
Now, I can enjoy a cup of Sleepytime at the end of the day with the sleepiest of them. But there’s not a trace of tea in it. The day a teapot can turn chamomile into tea is the day a coffee maker can turn peanuts into coffee.
So what can we do? Since I think the word “tea” is a lost cause, we need a new English word for Camellia sinensis. We could call it Camellia sinensis, but something just seems a bit odd about saying to your co-workers, “Hold that thought. I’m going to grab a quick cup of Camellia sinensis.”
How about we all rise up and start calling it, like the Dutch traders of old, after its Chinese name? “I’m going to make some 茶 chá. Anyone want some?”
The revolution begins in your cubicle.
Featured Image: Public Domain