The Origin of the Word "Tea"

Aside from water, green tea is the world's most consumed beverage. It has been estimated that over one-half of the world's population drinks tea. Although England and other Northern European languages share a liking for tea with the rest of the world, the word they use, "tea," is far different than the sounds that the rest of the world uses for the drink.

A Brief Look into the Origin of Tea

Chinese myth attributes the origin of the drink cha, Chinese for tea, to King Shen Nong, also known mythologically as the father of agriculture and medicine. It was decreed by King Shen Nong that for health reasons his subjects must boil water before drinking it. One day as Shen Nong sat in the shade of a tea tree boiling water to drink, a light breeze blew some of the tea leaves into his kettle; when he drank the infusion he marved at its delicious taste and at once felt invigorated. Tea had been invented. King Shen Nong is then purported to have recommended it to his subjects saying, "tea gives vigor to the body, contentment to the mind, and determination of purpose."

Although the famous ninth century Tea Master Lu Yu affirms that tea was discovered by, "King Shen Nong," a king named Shen Nong probably never lived. In China's ancient history, Shennong was the name of a primitive farming tribe. It is supposed by scholars that one clever Shennong chieftan, whos name has been lost to antiquity, had invented plowing tools and discovered the uses of medicinal herbs, including tea, which earned him the status of divinity and the name King Shen Nong, the Father of Tea.

There is also a Japanese ledgened as to the origin of tea and the tea plant itself. It involves Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who is fabled to have brought Zen Buddism to China. the following story relates an event that occurred after Bodhidharma, who had been sitting facing a wall during nine years of meditation, and who had fallen asleep during the fifth year:

"Bodhidharma fell asleep during his devotions, and upon awakening, he cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. Where they fell, a bush appeared. Its leaves, infused in water, created a liquid that prevented sleep."

Both of these myths are interesting and although they may have some historical significants, the following explanation on the origin of tea from William H. Ukers's book, All About Tea, may be more historically accurate:

"...the Chinese learned the use of the tea drink from aboriginal tribesmen of the hill districts bordering on Southwestern China (part of what is refered to in the fable Cha Pu as, 'Mother Nature's Tea Garden'). These tribesmen occasionally prepared a beverage by boiling raw, green leaves of wild tea trees in kettles over smoky, outdoor fires. This was the earliest, cude beginning of what the Chinese and Japanese later developed into a socio-religious rite of exquisite refinement."

"Thoughout the earlier centuries of its use, however, the tea drink always was taken, either primarily or secondarily, as a medicine; this aspect was never forgotten, and its Chinese and Japanese protagonists regarded it as a remedy for every human ailment."

It was around 350 AD, Kuo Po, a Chinese author of the Jin Dynasty (260-420 AD), revised the ancient Chinese dictionary, the Erh Ya. It included the first published account of methods of planting, processing, and drinking tea. It was not until the mid Tan Dynasty (618-907 AD), that a man named Lu Yu summarized the knowledge and experience of his predecessors and contemporaries into the world's first compenduim on tea, Ch'a Ching, "The Classic of Tea," also known as, "Cha Jing." This very detailed work helped to popularize the art of tea drinking, not only throughout China, but also in Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

When Ch'a Ching was written during the Tang Dynasty, the so called Classical school of tea, cake tea, that was boiled, was being prepared. During the next dynasty, the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the Romantic school, powdered tea, that was whipped, was in use, and by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the Natuarlistic school, the use of leaf tea, that was steeped, came into practice.

From Cha to Tea

Now, to address the matter at hand. How did we get from the Chinese, "cha," to something like, "tea?" Let us once again start from the beginning; as with most things, there is significant points in history to be aware of.

Initially, in the ancient Chinese written language a distinct character meaning tea did not exist. Instead, another character tu which means, "sow thistle" served dual purpose to carry the meaning of tea. This double meaning led to much confusion.

Some of the ambiguity was eliminated when an emperor in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) ruled that the character tu should be pronounced cha when meaning tea and tu when in reference to sow thistle. It was not until the 8th century AD that cha was finally given its own character. Ancient tu and cha are nearly identical with cha having one of the horizontal strokes on the middle vertical stroke from tu removed.

Now enter modern Chinese. The Chinese character cha now contains two different readings, "cha," and, "te," (rhymes with English, "hey," and falls between in English pronunciation of sounds, "tay," and, "day"). Variations of these two different pronunciations originate from different dialects of Chinese. Countries importing tea from the South of China, Guangzhou (Canton), borrowed the Cantonese sound cha. Macao, adjacent to Guangzhou, until the end of 1999 had still been under Portuguese authority. Therefore, the Portuguese incorporated the word cha for tea into their own language. Other examples of countries that imported this reading in supposedly the same way include Turkey ("Chay"), Japan ("Cha"), India ("Chaaya"), and Russia (also, "Chai").

Languages of countries that imported the leaves from the North of China, the port of Xiamen (Amoy), adopted some variation of the sound te. As Guangzhou was Portugal's trading center, Xiamen was the Netherland's port of trade. Accordingly, the Dutch word for tea, "Thee," originates from te. Dutch traders did business with many other countries and variations of their word, Thee, became part of other languages. Some examples include Spain ("té"), Germany ("Tee"), and of course the subject of this work— England ("Tea"). It should be mentioned however, that it is was likely that the original pronunciation of the English Tea was most likely, "tay."

Evidence of a Pronunciation Dichotomy

History reveals direct evidence of a very early dichotomy of the pronunciation of tea and cha in the form of an advertisement that ran in British newspapers in 1658. The ad, placed by Thomas Garway, a tea merchant, reads as, "...that excellent and by all Physitians approved China Drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other Nations Tay, alias Tee."

The first Englishman to mention tea in writing was R.L. Wickham. In a letter dated June 27, 1615, he requested that a branch office of the East India Company, for whom he was an agent, send to him a, "pot of the best sort of chaw." Chaw being another variation on the word cha. However, as modern English is proof: tea was the pronunciation to be adopted.

Tea in Other Languages

For your reference and enjoyment, here is how to say tea in other languages:

Tee Root:

Cha Root

Other/Unknown Root

If you know one that is not listed above, please /msg a_p the language and pronunciation.