Tea: Camellia Sinensis, or Just Anything That Will Infuse?

Blue Eyes Herbal "Tea" (Photo source: The English Tea Store)
Blue Eyes Herbal “Tea” (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

In tea-related discussion forums and groups, we keep encountering the discussion of whether the definition of the word “tea” should be limited to the varieties of the Camellia Sinensis plant or whether it is ok to call anything tea that will infuse in (hot?) water, as is quite common use in the English language. Never, though, will you encounter a point where this dispute is resolved, as important as it seems to be for many pure tea lovers to emphasize the difference and value it by a distinct linguistic usage of terms, reserving “tea” for the Camellia Sinensis plant and its derivate products. Considered equally crucial is the right to use the term “tea” for their herbs and fruit infusions by advocates of a language use that will call a herbal infusion a herbal tea and a fruit infusion a fruit tea, up to the point, where a 100% artificial dry granule product that will produce a sweet and citrus-like taste when stirred in cold water, can be called a lemon tea.

Rather an advocate of the “only tea is tea” claims myself, I found it quite interesting to discover that the described terminological confusion about the term “tea” is by no means restricted to the English language! In Germany, the German word “Tee” (tea) is used exactly the same way as it is in English, once for the actual tea plant, once for its derivate products, and also for “Kräutertee” (herbal tea), “Früchtetee” (fruit tea), “Gesundheitstee” (health tea), and so on. I checked on my third language, which is Thai, with similar results: while “chaa” in Thai means tea referring to Camellia Sinensis, “chaa dtôn-grà-jíap” literally translates to “roselle tea”, etc. Now, I had become really curious: what about the cradle of tea, China, where the use of tea (Camellia Sinensis) as a beverage is nearly as old as the oldest written Chinese language? It’s the end of the world as we know it: with “chá” (茶) being “tea” in Chinese, the Chinese online dictionaries also return 草药茶 (cǎoyàochá) for “herbal tea”, or  洋甘菊茶 (yánggān júchá) for “chamomile tea.”

Now, did Western languages adopt the double usage of the word tea from the Chinese? Or has the Chinese language adopted the confusing language usage to facilitate the herbs trade with European countries at some point in the old times? And is the issue consistent over other European languages, too? It will need a linguistic historian to tell about the first, but the answer to the second question is a clear No: in French, they call a herbal “tea” a “tisane” or “infusion”, in Spanish  an “infusión de hierbas”, and in Italian a “tisana” or “infuso di herbe”, while “real tea” (Camellia Sinensis) will be “thé”, “”, and “” in these 3 languages. A closer study of the roots of European languages reveals that the Balto-Slawo Germanic root of European languages produced languages, such as English and German, where “tea” is used alternatively for Camellia Sinensis and herbal/fruit tisanes, while the kelto-italo-tocharic language root produced languages, such as French, Spanish, and Italian, that clearly distinguish between the two.

None of this will do anything to resolve or arbitrate the dispute about what may be called tea and what not, but it might give those, who really care, some points from where to start their relevant research under a more linguistic-historical perspective, basically pursuing the question “Where and when has the mistake been made for the first time?”

See more of  Thomas Kasper’s articles here.

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One thought on “Tea: Camellia Sinensis, or Just Anything That Will Infuse?

  1. A very interesting article and clearly, most of the world is no clearer about this than we or you are. However, Istill prefer tea to refer to camilliea sinesis and tisane to the rest.

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