The Origin Of Our Word, “Tea”

calligraphic representation for the word tea.

In English tea is a neat, short word, but through out it’s long history, it has been spelled many different ways. It has been called tea, tee, tcha, chai, and many other variants.

The symbol to the right is the Chinese character for tea and has been used since at least the third century. There are in fact, two families of words that are used around the world, which come from the way that the Chinese character for tea has been pronounced. In Mandarin it is pronounced cha, In the Amoy dialect, which is spoken in the Fujian province and Taiwan, it is pronounced tay.

The two words took different paths in spreading out to the rest of the world, based on trade routes.

  • Cha. In the 5th century, the word cha expanded beyond the Chinese border. Tea went to Japan as o-cha, and to Persia as cha, which later evolved into the Arabic and Russian chai and the Turkish chay. Tea went to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, remaining as cha. While most of Western Europe uses a variation of “tay”, the Portuguese, who first brought tea to Europe, use cha.
  • Tay. The word tay began its travels later than cha, but spread beyond the Pacific Rim and Middle East to Europe. Xiamen (also known as Amoy), in the Fujian (Hokkien) province, was the port of trade first used by Europeans (mainly the Portuguese) in 1541. Near the end of the Ming Dynasty, in 1644, British merchants set up trading posts there; in the nineteenth century, it was China’s main port for exporting tea.

The pictures below are lists of names, and the languages and the derivative of either Tay or Cha. Click on the pictures to view them full size.













Thank you to “The Tea Cyclopedia” for these images.