What’s for Tea?

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…

12 thoughts on “What’s for Tea?

  1. I wondered if the following two ultra-nerdy points might be blog-food, if you haven’t dealt with them already:
    1. On the Business Programme today a BBC lady, reporting from the New York Stock Exchange, said “They have decided to leave interest rates as is.” Since the rates are plural shouldn’t it technically be “as are”?
    2. I have a Sarah McLachlan song on my MP3 player. It’s called “Wait” and in it she sings the line “And there is a love that’s inherently given”. Much as I like the song, this particular line sets my teeth on edge every time. I know you can put “inherently” before most nouns, but isn’t “given” implied or contained in inherently? Tautology? I can’t help thinking that “inherently” is just a shade off what she actually meant, which sadly I understand only too well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very interesting! My instinct on 1 is that as it’s already an abbreviation of “as it is,” people don’t feel as bound to properly pluralise it, as it’s already not exactly grammatically correct. 2 definitely seems tautological, unless she’s referring to actually physically giving something. But then inherently is generally used to refer to abstract qualities, so that wouldn’t be strictly correct either.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll take tea any time, any way, I can get it 🙂 On my visit to England over 20 years ago, our guide took our group to tea with his wife’s parents, who provided us a lovely afternoon tea, followed by a long walk in their beautiful countryside, followed by a light supper (they called it supper). All together, a wonderful experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Quite enjoyed this one! And just when I thought I had my questions answered you go and throw in some new English phrases for me… 😉 hahaha I love your sense of humor in your posts on top of your history-ish lessons. I have always genuinely wondered when “tea time” was and internet searches and wannabe smart friends always said “whenever you have time…” as if that solve my dilemma! I knew it had to be between 3-5 in the afternoon.


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