Origins of the Phrase “A Nice Cup of Tea”

I have always associated the phrase “a nice cup of tea” with the British. Whether it’s used anywhere else in the world I can’t say for sure but the British seem to give it quite a workout. One of the better-known uses of the phrase is as the title of an essay by George Orwell, who’s best known for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm. Orwell had some very pointed opinions about tea and he certainly wasn’t shy about sharing them.

Definitely a nice cup of tea! (ETS image)
Definitely a nice cup of tea! (ETS image)

Our good friend Mr. Google returns an impressive 11 million results for this phrase, which is more than I can hope to cover in the space of such a short article. So I thought I would focus on trying to trace some of the early uses of the phrase.

The earliest one I located appears in an 1809 volume by Edward Augustus Kendall. He was apparently best known for his children’s books, but he also published a book in that year called Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States. Twenty years later writer Anne Newport Royall – thought to be one of the first female journalists – used the phrase in another travel book, her Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania, Or, Travels Continued in the United States.

In 1830, the phrase is used in a short story, The Wishing Gate, that appears in an edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a British periodical that had a lengthy run from 1817 to 1980. In all of the aforementioned, whether fictional or not, the usage is similar. A person has either just had a nice cup of tea or is suggesting that someone else has a nice cup of tea and so on.

But in a reference that I found from some years later, in 1904, the usage is just a little bit different. It reflects this curious notion the British seem to have that a nice cup of tea can ameliorate any ill, malaise, tragedy, or disaster. It appears in a book called The Hound of the North: The Story of a Canadian Farm, by Ridgwell Cullum, who was actually British author Sidney Groves Burghard. The usage suggests that this notion of tea as a cure-all was rather well established by then. As one of the characters states, with great certainty, that another character – Prue – “will be all right after a nice cup of tea.”

Well, it’s certainly worth a try.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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