“Tea”—May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

It’s interesting, although rather unfortunate, that “tea” means so many things in English—and I view our often limited choice of words as one of the (many) downfalls of our language. (For example, I can think of several words and descriptions for “snow” but the Sami have 180 and the Scots apparently some 421!*)

The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) lists a slew of possibilities for “tea” and “tea”-including phrases:

  • the tea plant (Camellia sinensis)
  • the leaves of the tea plant (C. sinensis)
  • types of tea (e.g., black, green), meaning both (1) the processed leaves and (2) those leaves prepared as a beverage
  • plants other than C. sinensis, referring to (1) the plants themselves and (2) to beverages made with infused plant material (leaves, flowers, hips, etc.)
  • a meal that includes tea as a beverage
  • one’s hobby (“cup of tea”)
  • comfort, once referred to as “tea and sympathy”
  • the colonial slang in which “to take tea with” meant “to have dealings with, associate with,” but usually in a negative manner
  • the colloquial “not for all the tea in China” meaning “not for any price”
  • “to go (out) for one’s tea,” N. Irish slang for “going on military operations which might result in . . . death”

To which I might add:

  • poison, both C. sinensis, found in at least one “poison garden” that I’ve visited (caffeine!), and herbal (think Socrates)
  • gossip
  • affiliation (e.g., in early Korean history, tea-drinking Buddhists vs non-tea-drinking Confucianism adherents)
  • divination (reading the leaves)
  • the strategic tea, such as wielded by European women in the 1700s as they bent “having tea” to their own purposes, akin to what the men were doing in the coffee houses
  • money, with valuable bricks of tea serving as currency along trade routes
  • commodity, from a small garden owner to large estate owner to region (think Assam or Yunnan) to country
  • status
  • power

So when someone offers you “tea,” just what are they proposing?

A lovely caffeine-free, calming, herbal?

Or an expertly prepared C. sinensis rarity because they want to share with you—or impress you, or intimidate you?

Tea as bond? Or subtle weapon?

pouring tea

*Brooks, R. “Which language has the most words for snow?” The Language Blog, 12/19/15.

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