Etymology–the study of the origin and development of words–has long been an interest of mine. The history of a word–and language, in the meta sense–reveals a civilization’s culture, turning points, and influences, both on itself and on others.

Now, that’s a lot of words to say that tea has an interesting history, and I’m not talking about a bunch of white people dressing up as Native Americans and tossing boxes of this stuff into the water. According to this article by Quartz, with a few exceptions, there are two ways tea is said around the world: te and related words, and cha and its relatives. Both pronunciations are similar enough to one another where one can assume that they are related and changed through the millennia and passage through different cultures.

The distinction between the usage of cha and te depends on how tea came to their country–via water trade routes or land trade routes–because the product would be leaving from different regions of China. Tea leaving from coastal Fujian province used te, and was traded by Dutch merchants–hence te being used throughout Europe and anywhere else the Dutch had a port. This eventually included other European countries that set up colonies throughout Africa.

Land routes via the Silk Roads went through Central Asia and the Middle East for a millennia, including the trade of cha. Cha is used throughout Russia, India, Middle Eastern countries, and North African countries–all the way to sub-Saharan cultures. Side note: Cha is used in Portuguese because they colonized Macau–which uses that term for tea.

Te and cha is an interesting study of etymology, and the spread of food and culture. But it’s more than that. The article rightly points out two phases of globalized trade happening–the first taking place thousands of years ago via the land routes starting in China through Central Asia and eventually to the European and Middle Eastern courts and homes; and the second, more recent trade routes via the ocean and colonization.

So next time you take a sip of your boba milk tea, just before you choke on that tapioca ball, pause a bit and consider from where and whence that tea came.

One thought on “E-“tea”-mology

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