Would you like tea? You would? Great! But please, take a seat, because this is going to get complicated.
I’ve been thinking about the word tea recently, having noticed how French speakers use the word teatime in their own language. It’s a curious example of a very French phenomenon: using English words almost identically to how we use them, only with enough of a difference in use to make them sound odd to Anglophone ears (a post for another day, I think). You see, in French you can prendre un tea-time (have a teatime). Which of course sounded a little odd to me at first, because teatime isn’t a meal, so you can’t have it. Rather, as the word suggests it’s the time at which you have the meal. But here’s the important question: what meal do you have at teatime?
Well, tea, obviously, but which one? For you see, there are three distinct meals all known as tea in English.
In Britain in the 18 and 19th centuries, dinner was often served around 8pm, so the meal tea was developed in order to provide some sustenance during the long hours between lunch and dinner. In upper-class households where leisure time was plentiful, this became known as afternoon tea, and was usually served around 4pm, consisting of tea, of course, and some light dishes such as sandwiches.
For working-class families though, tea usually had to wait until shortly after 5pm, when the workday was finished. This meal, which tended to feature heavier cooked dishes such as pies, became known as high tea, apparently as families would have it while sitting on high-backed chairs, and not the soft armchairs of the upper classes.
Teatime then, refers to the general late-afternoon, early-evening period when either of these variations were served. But as I said earlier, there are three meals which claim the name tea, and the third one is the one that reallly provokes strong feelings in some people.
As we moved into the 20th century, the number of highly physically-demanding jobs declined, as did working hours, and many working-class families no longer felt the need to have both tea and dinner after work. Both meals were therefore often replaced by a single evening meal at about 6 or 7pm. Some called this dinner, but some preferred tea. To this day, what you call your evening meal is considered a sure sign of your social class in the UK. Referring to it as tea identifies you as working-class, whereas dinner is more of a practice of the middle classes. If you’re a member of the upper classes though, the word dinner might be refer to a formal affair, and therefore the word supper is used to refer to a more humble, homemade evening meal.
But of course supper is also sometimes used, by those who use the term dinner, to refer to a light nighttime meal. You can see then, why this gets confusing, and why people get so defensive about which one they use! Makes you want to sit down with a nice cup of tea, or cha, or char, or cuppa…