Word Stories - May 1, 2024 - 3 min

I Like Coffee, I Like Tea

Whatever your stance on modern international law may be, we hope you will abide by United Nations resolution 74/241 and observe May 21 as International Tea Day. Since 2019, the UN has promoted this unofficial global holiday as a way to raise awareness about the continuing importance of the tea trade—both culturally and agriculturally—on a planetary scale.

From a word lover’s point of view, it’s also a good time to reflect on the impressive history of our daily caffeine fixes. As you may know, everyday words like coffee and tea have percolated down to us over many years and many miles. If you drink deep from such global perspectives, you might find grounds for a deeper appreciation of the way these loanwords are on everybody’s lips today. You could say it’s one of the perks of being steeped in the history of words. Let’s take a quick coffee break, then, and savour the delicious, stimulating stories of the world’s favourite hot drinks.


Surprisingly enough, the English were among the last European peoples to adopt tea. The shrub, the leaf and the drink were completely unknown in England before 1650, but at the turn of the eighteenth century, 200,000 pounds of Camellia sinensis leaves were already being consumed annually, and ten times that amount some fifty years later! But it was not until the 1860s that the famous English “afternoon tea” ritual accompanied by a light meal developed nationwide popularity. It became known as “five o’clock tea”, given that it usually took place around that hour. By around 1880, the custom had crossed over to continental Europe, including France, where le five o’clock, meaning “five o’clock tea”, was adopted as a noun.

The form tea is attested as far back as 1655 in English as tay, tey, tee or tea. It evolved from , the word for “tea” in the Amoy dialect of Min Chinese. Amoy, now called Xiamen, was a major trading port in China’s southern Fujian Province, from which tea leaves were shipped in large quantities to European countries. The form therefore has cognates in a great number of European languages, including French thé, Spanish , Italian , and Dutch thee. The dialectical Chinese form chá has also come into English as the word chai, based on the Hindustani name for sweet black tea prepared with milk and spices. This means that when you order a chai tea at your favourite café, you are (etymologically speaking) asking for some “tea tea”.


The origins of coffee drinking can be traced back to Yemen in the 15th century, where the shrubs from Ethiopia could be domesticated and the local Sufi Muslims wanted to stay alert for their prayers. Within a century, though, the bracing hot drink had spread across the Middle East, and been welcomed from Turkey into most of Europe. Due to this history, the word coffee as we know it preserves Arabic and Turkish flavours. In Arabic, the drink was named qahwah, a word also applied to wine and variously explained as drawing on Semitic roots like qhw (“to be dark”) or qhy (“to be satisfied”).

However it got its start, the name qahwah was adopted into Turkish as kahveh, which passed into Italian as caffè and thereby into French as café. This latter derivative form is of course what lies behind English nouns like café (the kind of place that might sell coffee), café au lait (coffee prepared with a generous amount of steamed milk), and caffeine (an alkaloid found in coffee). English speakers also borrowed the Turkish word in their own ways in the 1600s, giving rise to a wide range of variants like coahoa, cahu, cahve, coffa, caffa, and cauphey. The form that eventually won out, though, was coffee—which can be traced as far back as Doctor Gideon Harvey’s recommendation of coffee as a safeguard against the bubonic plague (A Discourse of the Plague, 1665).


Herbal teas are hot infused drinks that may or may not use actual tea leaves. Such beverages are sometimes also called tisanes. To really understand why, we need to know something about the very different daily drinks that were popular in Classical times. In Ancient Greek, the verb ptissein could mean “to peel” or “to crush”, and the derivative ptisanē referred to both peeled barley and gruel made with barley. Imperial Latin borrowed the latter form as ptisana, referring to both the grain and the gruel. The initial Greek pt sound was alien to Latin, and by the Late Latin period it had dropped out to produce the form tisana, which passed into 13th-century French as tisane and 15th-century English as thisane—all of which meant “barley gruel”. In the 17th century, French extended the use of the term to a range of hot drinks deemed healthy or medicinal, and English speakers followed suit. For these reasons, a tisane is almost always some kind of “herbal tea” in both French and English today, and is unlikely to contain much in the way of barley.

This article was concocted by
Antidote’s linguists

Try Antidote for free!

Start now
No results