“Afternoon Tea” vs. “High Tea” — Should We Preserve the Distinction?

Posting menus can help avoid confusion!
Posting menus can help avoid confusion!

In a previous article, I looked at what “high tea” was back then and how the term is used now, which is pretty much as a synonym for “afternoon tea” (also called “low tea” by some). The question is whether to re-establish that distinction or not of high tea (also called “meat tea”) as dinner.

Why We Should

Words are important. And they have specific meanings. If they don’t, then communication fails. For example, if you walk into a hardware store and ask for a hammer, the store employee will show you hammers. Then you say, “No, I want a hammer.” The employee will be totally at a loss, not knowing that you really want a screwdriver. You will have to wonder around the handtool section of the store until you find the screwdrivers, uh, I mean, “hammers.”

If you have a tearoom and advertise “high tea,” anyone used to the old style of high tea, which is more like our dinner (that is, includes at least one meat dish and is served at a regular height table versus a coffee table), will be rather shocked at the menu offered if you bring them scones, cakes, and other tidbits with their tea. These are the kinds of foods served at “afternoon tea.”

Why We Should Not

I learned in my Philosophy classes to look at both sides of an issue, the pro and con. So, here’s the con. In a nutshell: What’s the big deal, so what if “high tea” has morphed into a fancy afternoon tea time? Add to that the wide usage where the average tearoom goer no longer has any idea that the term is being misused. Now, we can see that changing could cause more confusion. Sigh! It’s like trying to get folks to stop using things like “rooibos tea,” “herbal tea,” etc. It’s up to us customers, it seems, to educate ourselves and learn what is what.

One thing I would ask: Give enough information about your “high tea,” “herbal tea,” etc., so that we can find out which thing you are really meaning. Post your menu, for example, for that “high tea” or give the full ingredients for that “herbal tea.” Then, we, your customers, can make informed choices and don’t get some rather disappointing surprises.

While I’m at it, there are petit teas, royal high teas, champagne teas, and more. Quite a panoply.


See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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4 thoughts on ““Afternoon Tea” vs. “High Tea” — Should We Preserve the Distinction?

  1. Pingback: The Best of the English Tea Store Tea Blog in 2013 | Tea Blog

  2. Words are important. And you have used ‘panopoly” which is a bonus.
    The problem we have is common usage. Words and phrases change over time. And not consistently. For example “napkin” and “napron” both came into Middle English from French at the same time, and 200 or so years later when writing was more common they took the forms ” a napkin” and “an apron”. Why? Who knows. But ‘correctly’ using “a napron” in writing is no longer possible.
    Like you, I’m a bit of a purist, but the world sadly won’t bend to our will.You just can’t slap enough faces. I am often accused of being “Frasier” when I kindly point out who wrong people are.
    You last point is valid – tell people what they get. A Devonshire Tea (AU) or a Cream Tea (UK) or a morning tea can all mean 2 scones, jam, cream and a cup of tea, so be specific!

    1. A.C. Cargill

      Yes, words change over time. That is probably the root of all evils in the world. *wink!* Actually, I have come to the conclusion that just getting people to state clearly the details will avoid confusion. If you want to call a screwdriver a “hammer”, be prepared to describe it to the hapless hardware store employee or bring a photo. Hee! And watch what faces you slap – they might slap back. 🙂

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