Don't "Chai" and "Tea" Both Mean the Same Thing?

Next time you order a chai tea from your corner coffee shop, take a moment and appreciate your killer multi-lingual skills. After all, etymologically speaking, the words “chai” and “tea” refer to exactly the same thing, just in different languages. So what’s the deal?

Almost five thousand years ago, when folks in China started sipping a yummy, steeped beverage made from dried leaves and buds, different regions had different names for it. Most Chinese languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, referred to the stuff by a word that is pronounced like “chá.” But other dialects, including Min Nan Chinese, which was spoken around Fujian, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, referred to it by a word that sounds more like "te."

Take It To Go

Flash forward about four and a half thousand years, and you have the exportation of tea via land and sea routes to the West. Portuguese traders, who are credited with first bringing the herbal drink to Europe in the late sixteenth century, followed a trade route through Macao, and thus used a derivation on the Cantonese: cha, shai, choy. It was the same story with overland routes to Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Russia, hence the use of “chai” in those languages, too.

Alternatively, Dutch traders, who had a corner on the tea market in Western Europe—including Spain, France, Germany and Italy—got most of their goods from the Fujian region, and therefore referred to it by derivations on its Min Nan Chinese name: té, tèh, tey. Also, because that was an era of colonial powers, many of those European countries exported the word “te” to their colonial regions, which is why languages like Javanese say “tèh,” too.

That is, of course, an oversimplification of how the word has evolved in every language. A lot of languages, particularly in places where the tea plant grew naturally, have their own name for tea, too. Other languages use the word “tea” or “chai” to refer to lots of different kinds of drinks.

And then—just to further complicate things—there are the modern American marketing geniuses, who want to make us think that “chai” means “milky and spicy tea,” “tea” means the herbal stuff we can see through, and “Tazo” means something else entirely.

“Tazo,” for the record, seems to be just a clever brand name referring to specific blends of tea. While there’s a whole mythology of the word printed on the side of tea boxes, I haven’t been able to find any historically verifiable etymology of that word. Either way—chai, tea or Tazo—sign me up for a large.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

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July 29, 2013 - 12:03am
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