How Does One Actually Read Tea Leaves?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Sportswriters are often maligned for their over-reliance on clichés (amongst other things; Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote that the only things a sports reporter needs are "a Roget's Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph," and "a blind willingness to believe anything you're told"). But, to be fair, they have to cover events that are repetitive by design and resistant to new terminology.

As anyone who has been following NBA free agency can tell you, the clichés don't stop once the games are over. This period — which has centered around yet another LeBron James decision — has turned sportswriters into amateur fortune tellers, desperately citing "anonymous sources" to buttress their guesswork.

One term has come up so often, we received an inquiry from a reader about the phrase's origins. "Reading the tea leaves" is a common cliché that has become a crutch for anyone tasked with writing about NBA free agency.

"Reading the tea leaves" comes from tasseography, which is the practice of telling someone's fortune by "reading" a splotched or smeared substance. In the middle ages, self-proclaimed clairvoyants would use melted wax or molten metals for the process, but after the tea trade exploded in the 17th century, these leaves from the Far East became the magic material of choice for this Western tradition (coffee is also popular).

The process varies by psychic, but it usually goes something like this: Un-strained tea is poured into a cup or container. The subject then drinks or dumps the liquid out. What remains is a bunch of soggy tea stuck to the sides and bottom of the cup, which is then interpreted by the reader as either a series of symbols or the outlines of pertinent imagery. See an acorn? That could mean you have good health in your future. A sword? You may be thrust into an argument soon. A 90-foot-tall talking water buffalo? You weren't drinking normal tea, my friend.

LeBron James has chosen to go back to Cleveland, but the smudge at the bottom of our cup looks kind of like a thimble — that means trouble at home. Get ready to break the Earl Grey out again in a couple of years; James's contract is only for two seasons.