Tea by sea. Cha by land.
January 18, 2019 9:42 PM   Subscribe

History of the word for 茶 (tea). Silk road land based trade led to the spread of 'cha' based words, but 'te' based words come from the sea based trade.
posted by freethefeet (27 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
I thought the Polish “herbata” was somehow an exception, but no:
From Latin herba (to grow) thea (tea)
posted by migurski at 10:14 PM on January 18 [7 favorites]

Neat! This is relevant to my interests.
posted by greermahoney at 10:26 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

This is fuckin' fascinating!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:43 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

I read this article before one day when I was wondering about this same question, because as it says, tea in Mandarin is "cha" but in the Chinese dialects common in Singapore/Malaysia (Hokkien and Teochew), and also in Malay, it is "teh". Hence the common tea drinks in this part of the world are "teh oh", "teh si", "teh tarik", "teh alia"*, etc. I was wondering whether the term "teh" was actually a corruption of "tea" due to British influence, but it turned out ot be the other way around! (Just like the word ketchup.)

* Here's a guide to what all those terms mean
posted by destrius at 11:14 PM on January 18 [6 favorites]

Interestingly "char" was (is?) also used as slang for tea among the English, so in a way they ended up with both words.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:49 PM on January 18 [4 favorites]

And because Polish has to be this weird border child, we boil water for herbaTA in a CZAJnik.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:50 AM on January 19 [17 favorites]

Interestingly "char" was (is?) also used as slang for tea among the English, so in a way they ended up with both words.

A "cup of char" is still used (at least by me), but it is an expression I associate with my Nana and her generation, so probably characteristic of people who were born around WWI. I'm presuming that we got the "te" sound directly from Min Nan Chinese, and later picked up the "cha" version "second hand" through the imperial Anglo-Indian cultural osmosis, which adds just another wrinkle to the fascinating geo-linguistic complexity of it all.
posted by howfar at 1:31 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

I’m disappointed to be faced with the reality that herbata is just a “the” root word. It has been a long time pleasant false thought for me that they were the cool outlier in Europe. Oh well.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:56 AM on January 19

This is really interesting and I like that Portugal serves as a kind of checksum for the theory.
posted by chavenet at 3:29 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

Apart from Portugal, there's also a pink dot over the Basque country in Spain, but I think the Basque word for tea is just te. I wonder why it's a pink dot and not a blue dot, then?
posted by lollymccatburglar at 4:47 AM on January 19

I was wondering whether the term "teh" was actually a corruption of "tea" due to British influence, but it turned out ot be the other way around! (Just like the word ketchup.)

haha relatedly that's me last week when i found out 'mandarin' came to china via the west from portuguese who took it from a malay word with a sanskrit origin lmao
posted by cendawanita at 4:55 AM on January 19 [7 favorites]

Oh wow I never knew the "mandarin" came from "menteri"! But it makes perfect sense.

Another interesting word is "roti"; it comes from the Indian subcontinent and refers to flatbreads there, but ends up referring to all kinds of breads in Malay, including regular white sandwich bread. In Singapore (and probably Malaysia) older Chinese folks use the term to refer to white bread, pronounced as "loh-ti". This is despite there being an actual Chinese word for bread, 面包 (mian bao).
posted by destrius at 5:10 AM on January 19 [3 favorites]

That makes sense to me, since roti may be the region's first exposure to wheat-based breads, and in Malay grammar, the complete noun for a thing is always [general noun] + [specific noun]* and the general noun seems to be the noun that can act as a family class for a group of roughly equivalent things. So yeah, what you're observing is the grammar in action!

(One of the weirder ones to the modern understanding that I just had a convo about is 'pisang kaki' because in Malay it literally sounds like 'foot banana' but no it's just that kaki is Japanese for persimmon so it's literally just 'japanese banana', lol)

*Naturally and definitely in speech and probably influenced by the other languages around it, this rule isn't so closely followed in everyday life so you pick up by context but also obscures the rule.
posted by cendawanita at 5:42 AM on January 19 [5 favorites]

I remember thinking when I was learning Russian and knew some Japanese that чай (chay) seemed very similar to お茶 (o-cha). It all seemed more curious when there was a fad for "chai" teas. This ties all of them together in a really fascinating way.
posted by graymouser at 6:06 AM on January 19

Aaah cendwanita, that explains so much about Bahasa Indonesian grammar!!!!!!!!
posted by ChuraChura at 6:15 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

In Greek there's actually words of both kinds - the one that's overwhelmingly used by now is τσάι that I guess came over by land via Turkey, while the more formal τέϊον, loaned from the French is no longer in use except as a scientific term.
posted by each day we work at 7:23 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

The first two paragraphs, spelling out the main thesis, got me quite intrigued. But seeing it all on the map -- mind blown. That is a fantastic visualization. Seeing all those blue dots on the coast, the red ones closer on the interior, a few translations added: scanning that solidifies that theory in a very satisfying way. And the map prompted some questions, eg. the case of Portugal. How'd those seafarers get a "chay" variant? Which the article answers nicely -- theory saved!
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 8:11 AM on January 19

If you want an outlier, there's the Ojibwe word aniibiishaaboo derived from roots for "leaf-water". Which leads to one of my favorite ethnic terms, the Ojibwe word for Chinese person, aniibiishaabookewinini, not just because it's a mouthful but because it basically means "teamaker".
posted by traveler_ at 9:20 AM on January 19 [22 favorites]

Cha if by land, and tea if by sea, and I on the opposite shore shall be...
posted by Oyéah at 3:48 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

P.S. I thought cha, chai was Himalayan, northern Indian, Tibetan, land locked and I can see how it traded outward on the silk road. It is such a sweet treat, more like a food with cream, sugar or even yak butter. Interesting how the word gets out. I assumed tea evolved from the need to boil water for survival, and then make it taste decent, then it evolved to high art.
posted by Oyéah at 3:57 PM on January 19

For thousands of millennia ancient people around the world drank "tea" and "chai" for its health benefits, detoxifying effects, cleansing of the organs and skin, expulsory digestive enhancement, and stimulation of the thinky faculties. But what if we could go further? What if "tea" could be more? Both embiggening climate change and temporally strengthened science present the need and opportunity for a more sustainable, more advanced leaf water. And that's just what we've done, with inappropriate amounts of venture capital.

Tea? [disapproving Drake]
Cha? [disapproving Drake]
Why not BOTH?
ChTeeAh! [approving Drake]

We are proud to present ChTeeAh, a dihydrogen monoxide beverage infused with the essence of soil-grown, evaporation-dried Camellia sinensis, shipped to your door in hand-designed Givenchyite rubystone-studded limited edition bottles, assembled by immigration status-challenged orphans managed by our not-yet-profitable-so-actually-it's-still-a-charity foundation, RIGHT HERE IN THE USA!

ChTeeAh is the more sustainable, more advanced leaf water for a new generation. Your generation. Improved with modern science, enhanced with modern design, more compassionate through local sourcing and production, more global thanks to a more inclusive etymology.

Can't get enough ChTeeAh? Want to make your own? We also offer the Aniibiishaabookewinini Home ChTeeAh Kit, which includes everything you'll need to create your own refreshing ChTeeAh from the convenient of home including pots, a 100L rainwater catchbasin, matches, firewood, a chainsaw for when the firewood runs out and your neighbor's shed is looking combustible, 200 tons of Chinese soil, Camellia sinensis seeds, 50 heat lamps, CD-ROM containing a link to "google.com" and helpful suggested local agricultural bylaw production search terms, a Doreamon sippy cup, and a yak.

Order yours at [redacted by common sense].
posted by saysthis at 4:07 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

I always thought the Olde British 'char'/'chah' came from India, like verandah, bungalow, and shampoo.
posted by basalganglia at 5:00 PM on January 19

This is fascinating.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:17 PM on January 19

The "Cha by land" motion breaks down a bit when looking at East Africa. The map shows an inexplicable and improbable overland route through the Arabian Penninsula, but I would be very surprised if the actual introduction of the drink was not via maritime trade, that being what the Swahili coast is famous for.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:56 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]

The map’s use of “ocha” in Japanese, if anything, obscures things — the Japanese word for tea is “cha” and the o- prefix just indicates politeness (though it’s conventional to add it for tea nowadays, to the point where dropping the prefix sounds like you’re making a point about not needing to show politeness, but still, the word is technically just “cha,” straight-up as-is)
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:11 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]

It looks like the deal with East Africa is that they got the words by sea, not directly from Southern China, but from a place that had gotten them by land along the Silk Road.

Which means, yeah, "tea by sea" is an oversimplification, it's more like "tea when the first step in the chain was by sea." But that makes sense — if the word you're calling it is "cha," the word you've always called it is "cha," and you're a thousand miles from China, you're not suddenly going to start calling it "te" just because you got on a boat late in the game.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:25 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]

"cha" in Korean isn't exclusively for tea--it's used for most things brewed.

(i mean, technically, "tea" in English isn't used exclusively for tea, but it's theoretically supposed to be.)
posted by anem0ne at 12:19 PM on January 21

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