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You say cha and I say tea: origins of a beloved drink

British tea - Blog

Whether you are a tea lover or not, you’re probably aware that tea leaves were first discovered in the East a good many centuries ago. After then being brought to Europe and other continents, tea is now a staple drink all around the world.

But what do you call the drink in your mother tongue? Did you know that ‘tea’ is either ‘te’ or ‘cha(i)’ in almost every language in the world? Both names originally come from the Chinese 茶, which is pronounced ‘ta’ or ‘te’ in Min Chinese, but the same character is pronounced as ‘cha’ (as in ‘Charles’, with a rising intonation) in Mandarin Chinese (and similarly in Cantonese).

Name origins

The reason behind the difference in name is rather amusing: during the early years of tea cultivation in China, the leaves were unprocessed and had a bitter taste, which justified naming the drink ‘荼 tu’, meaning ‘bitter vegetable’. The current word for tea in Mandarin, ‘茶 cha’, didn’t come into recorded existence until 760 AD, when a scholar named Lu Yu wrote the Cha Jing (or the Classic of Tea), mistakenly omitting a cross stroke from the character ‘tu’, resulting in the much different word ‘cha’.

Tea had remained a secret of the East for around a thousand years, but once the Portuguese arrived in China in the 1500s, they soon realised its potential and decided to export it, calling the drink ‘cha’, just like the people of southern China. From the port of Canton – around modern-day Guangzhou – Hong Kong, and Macau, the Portuguese would then ship the now-processed leaves down through Indonesia, under the southern tip of Africa, and back up to western Europe.

Etymology of ‘cha’

The drink brought over from China is still called ‘chá’ in Portuguese, but there are other languages that share a similar pronunciation. The Japanese, who were first introduced to tea between the years 794 and 1195 AD by travelling Japanese monks, call the drink ‘cha’, using the same character as in Chinese. In Korean, tea is pronounced ‘차 cha’ as well, and in Vietnamese it is called ‘trà’.

Besides those countries, long before the root word ‘cha’ made its way across the oceans to Portugal, there was another trade route spreading tea westward, traversing China’s Yunnan province along the ‘Tea-Horse’ road. The tea leaf travelled to India via Persia, where the Chinese ‘cha’ had turned into the Persian ‘چای chay’. In most parts of India, tea is known by the Hindi word ‘चाय chai’, although it is also called ‘চা cha’ in Bengali, and ‘ചായ chaya’ in Malayalam.

Tea in Europe

About 100 years after the Portuguese first discovered tea, the Dutch, who first encountered it in 1607 around the modern-day Fujian province, started shipping the leaf from China through their own trade routes. Despite pronunciation differences in Chinese dialects, the Dutch called the drink ‘thee’, following in the linguistic footsteps of the Hoklo folk of Fujian.

The Portuguese didn’t have much success spreading the word ‘chá’, so the reason many Eastern countries share a similar name is different: the form ‘chai’ likely developed in Persian from its Chinese predecessor, and spread from there throughout Eastern Europe, as well as the eastern half of Southern Europe via Russian, thanks to Russia’s trade relations with Central Asia:

(Source: “Tea” in European Languages (map) (

The popularisation of tea in the UK

Although the British East India Company had had a monopoly on importing goods from outside Europe since 1600 – and it is likely that sailors on these ships brought tea home as gifts –, tea wasn’t that popular in the UK at the time and was mainly consumed as a medicine, supposedly invigorating the body and keeping the spleen free of obstructions. It wasn’t until 1662, when Catherine of Braganza (daughter of Portugal’s King John IV) won the hand of England’s newly restored monarch, King Charles II, that the tea started to change from a simple herbal drink into a sophisticated everyday habit.

According to Sarah-Beth Watkins, author of Catherine of Braganza: Charles II's Restoration Queen, ‘When Catherine married Charles, she was the focus of attention – everything from her clothes to her furniture became the source of court talk. Her regular drinking of tea encouraged others to drink it. Ladies flocked to copy her and be a part of her circle.’

Catherine of Braganza, the Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland

(Credit: DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images)

Catherine’s daily tea-drinking ritual soon started to be imitated by the British court, followed by the upper classes. Combined with finely crafted Chinese porcelain which was rather expensive at the time, tea drinking would become a symbol of sophistication throughout the nation.

Why do we spell it tea?

First brought and introduced to England by the Dutch as thee, the drink name would be spelled in different ways before it assumed its current form. A fun legend has it that the crates Catherine of Braganza brought from Portugal – probably as part of her dowry – were marked Transporte de Ervas Aromáticas (Transport of Aromatic Herbs) – later abbreviated to T.E.A., which would have originated the English spelling used today. Whilst that is probably not true, it is still an amusing suggestion.

Whatever you choose to call it, we hope that you’ve learnt a few interesting facts from this article. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even share them with friends or family over your next cuppa!

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