The Etymology of Tea | Why do we call it Tea, Cha, Chai, Thé or Tee?

Many know the origins of tea and how the plant has since become widely exported across the world. Have you ever wondered why we call tea “Tea”? Or how many different words can mean “tea”? Let’s dive into the etymology of tea!

A popular phrase when it comes to the etymology of tea: “Tea if by sea, Cha if by land”. As tea was being traded along the Silk Road, variations of “cha” spread across Asia and other regions. Meanwhile, the derivatives of “tea” were spread over the sea and oceans by Dutch traders who introduced the herb to Europe at a large scale. If the word for tea sounds like ‘tea’ in your language, it was highly likely imported through the waters. 

We are all familiar with the chinese character for tea – 茶 (cha). However, due to the various dialects around the nation, this character is pronounced differently across China. Most Chinese languages, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, pronounce it along the lines of cha, but provinces along the Southern coast of China, such as Fujian pronounce it like teh. Within Asia, over the centuries, the words te and cha have transformed into more variations. In Central Asia, derivatives of Chai are more common. 

Among the traders from the West, the Portuguese were the first to import tea in large amounts. Since they were trading in the south of China, mainly in Macau, they adopted the local word for tea which is chá. 

Conversely, the Dutch may have borrowed their word for tea through trade directly from Fujian or Formosa (Taiwan), or from Malay traders in Java who had adopted the Min pronunciation as teh. As they were the pioneers of tea trade in Europe, the Dutch rendition of tea; thee has influenced many European languages. Notably, the French (thé), Spanish (), and German (Tee). 

There are some exceptions to this however. For example in  Myanmar, the word of normal tea is "laat-paat-ray","လက်ဖက်ရည်", where "laat-paat" stands for Camellia sinensis and "ray" for solution or juice.

Locally, in Singapore, teh has a different connotation. Walk into any local coffee house and you will find that teh is a cup of tea commonly mixed with condensed milk. This rich history of tea is a testament to the popularity of the beverage. 

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