Word Stories - May 7, 2018 - 2 min

Naturalized Flavours

The culinary theme continues in this month’s selection of Word Stories. After sampling a few recent additions to the anglophone diet, we return to some of its most common and best loved products: tea, chocolate and ketchup. But can the English really claim them as their own? After all, none are originally from the English-speaking world, and, as it turns out, nor are the names we give them. Read on to learn about the exotic etymological origins of these familiar favourites.


Surprisingly, the English were among the last European peoples to adopt tea. The shrub, the leaf and the drink were completely unknown 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! In the early 1800s, the drink even rivalled beer in popularity. 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 even adopted as a noun.

The form tea was attested starting in 1655 as tay, tey, tee or tea. It is ultimately from the Amoy dialect of Min Chinese tê (茶), probably via transitory Dutch and Malay etymons. Amoy, now Xiamen, was a major trading port in China’s southern Fujian Province, from which tea leaves were shipped in large quantities to European countries. This form has cognates in a great number of European languages, including French thé, Spanish , Italian , Dutch thee, and many more.

Tea shares its etymological origins with the forms char, cha and the more recent chai, making the familiar expression chai tea an etymologically pleonastic construction translatable as “tea tea”.


Chocolate comes from Central America and southern Mexico, where evidence of its use has been dated to as early as 1900 BCE. Indigenous Mesoamericans made cocoa beans into a bitter drink, sometimes flavoured, possibly fermented and perhaps used in rituals, depending on the exact era and place. Drinks made with imported Central American chocolate were a luxury among the Aztec nobility, and cocoa beans were used as a currency in the Aztec Empire. In Nahuatl (the Aztec language) the drink might have been known as xocolātl, possibly from xococ “bitter” and ātl “drink”, although this form is not attested until the eighteenth century. Another possibility is that the word is in fact a compound formed of two native elements: xocol (haa), Mayan for “hot (beverage)”, and (cacahu)atl, the Classical Nahuatl term for “cocoa beans”. In any case, upon Spanish colonization, the word entered the Spanish lexicon as chocolate (pronounced cho-ko-lat-eh, with an extra final syllable compared to its English counterpart). Chocolate became very popular around Europe, which is how the word entered English and other languages.


Ketchup is ultimately traceable to mainland China, where several dialects have a similar word for fermented fish sauces, including kê-chiap or kê-tsiap (鮭汁) in the Amoy dialect of Min Nan (Fujian) Chinese; this comes from roots meaning “(fermented) salmon” and “brine”. The sauce and the name were borrowed and adapted by the Malay people, who called it kēchap in their language. British sailors encountered the sauce and brought it to the other colonies, notably to North America, where local preferences led to the development of a sweeter version with less (and finally no) fish and a tomato base. Catsup is an Anglicized variant sometimes found in the southern US, but which has never replaced ketchup, whose pronunciation remains surprisingly close to its Asian roots.

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