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Tea Terminology — “Tea Soup”

Tea terminology can sometimes seem very fluid (pun intended), so when I saw the term “tea soup” being used, it was no surprise. Since this first sighting, I have seen other sites using this term, too. I suspect, though, that the term has come about based on an issue of translation.

Tea soup in the making. A glass gaiwan lets you see all the action. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)
Tea soup in the making. A glass gaiwan lets you see all the action. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

The site I originally saw the term “tea soup” on was owned by a Chinese tea company. They were native speakers of Chinese who were translating into English, always a tricky thing to do, and for the most part they did a very reasonable job. It seemed, though, that their use of the word “soup” instead of “liquid” was a typical mistranslation (I’ve seen a number of such issues when helping foreign students at university with their various class papers).

It seems that other tea sites have picked up this term and are now using it, but inconsistently. They are basically referring to the liquid that is steeped from the tea leaves. Some call it “liquor,” some call it “liquid,” others call it “soup.” And some sites use all three in the same paragraph for the same tea.

The various terms being used interchangeably is not a big issue here. This is not like when people use the term “chai” (which means “tea” according to hubby’s Indian co-worker) instead of “spiced tea,” a practice that is commonplace but which causes comical moments and leaves one wondering if the tea company really knows anything about tea. (See my article Tea Terminology — “Chai Tea” vs. “Masala Chai”.) Using “soup” instead of “liquor” or “liquid” will not lead to confusion. They’re all liquids and so no miscommunication is caused here.

Even so, I tend to prefer to use the word “liquid” instead of “soup” and “liquor.” This is mainly due to connotative meanings. When you hear the word “soup,” do you think of chicken or other soups, something that is eaten with a spoon, not sipped from a cup? As for “liquor,” it implies alcoholic content, which is not the case with straight teas (as opposed to tea mixed with beer, vodka, wine, etc.)

Which term you use is your choice, and your meaning will be clear in any case.

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7 responses to “Tea Terminology — “Tea Soup””

  1. […] Tea Terminology — “Tea Soup”, By A.C. Cargill […]

  2. Actually I think “tea soup” (cha tong) may just be a redundant term. I’m pretty certain “tea soup” is just a fancy and longer way of saying “tea”.

    1. Could be. But just saying “tea” (at least in English) is insufficient. Does one mean the plant, the leaves, a general infusion (including herbals), the liquid, or a meal? Ah, the wonders of tea!

      1. Good point, so then in that case having the word “soup” in there would be a good thing to be more accurate. Don’t get me started on “masala chai, and chai cha”i, and calling “herbals” a “tea”!

      2. We are on the same mental wavelength here! Tea Terminology — “Chai Tea” vs. “Masala Chai” http://englishtea.us/2012/11/15/tea-terminology-chai-tea-vs-masala-chai/

  3. Good article. I am picky about “tea language” as well. It is interesting when you hear Chinese tea connoiseurs taste teas. You may hear like you said, tea soup “cha tong” or some other terms such as “Yat Pau Cha” (a complete cycle of brewing), “Yat Chung Cha” (an infusion of tea), “fu” (bitter), “hui gan” (minty bitterness). Maybe some of these like tea soup will be adopted into the english language.

    Please check out my blog if you have time [link removed per blog policy]


    1. Personally, I prefer to use the term “liquid”. It’s less confusing for us Westerners who are used to eating our “soup” with a soup and drinking our “liquids” from cups. 🙂

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