Idioms About Tea

Simon Horobin, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #504

tea idioms

Tea was first imported into Britain early in the seventeenth century, becoming very popular by the 1650s. The London diarist Samuel Pepys drank his first cup in 1660, as recorded in his famous diary: “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before.” The word tea derives ultimately from the Mandarin Chinese word chá, via the Min dialect form te. The Mandarin word is also the origin of the informal word char, heard today in phrases like a nice cup of char. The Chinese origin of the plant is remembered in the idiom not for all the tea in China, meaning “certainly not,” “not at any price,” which originated in Australian slang of the 1890s.

By the eighteenth century, tea had become a symbol of fashionable society and a staple of the coffee house culture. Samuel Johnson was a self-confessed “hardened and shameless tea-drinker…whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.” As tea-drinking developed into an elaborate social ritual, so did the associated paraphernalia. From the eighteenth century we find references to tea-spoons, tea-boxes, tea-tongs, tea-kitchens (similar to a modern tea-urn), tea-caddies (from catty, a unit of weight, ultimately derived from Malay kati); sets comprising cups, saucers, tea-pots, and other essentials were known as tea-equipage, or rather more prosaically as tea-things, or tea-services (as they still are today). The trade in growing, selling, and administering tea created a need for tea-growers, tea-sifters, and tea-ladies (nowadays associated with a tea-trolley and tea-urn); the grandest ceremonies were overseen by a tea-hostess or tea-master to ensure proper etiquette was observed.