Eating Your Words

The fascinating origins of everyday culinary words and phrases

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Food glorious food!

Everything but the kitchen sink

Keep the pot boiling

Out of the frying pan

Salad days  

In the soup!

Cook one’s goose  

Give us a butchers!   

What a sauce!

A sandwich short of a picnic

Feeling groggy           

Just my cup of tea

Look to your laurels   

The spice of life      

In a nutshell   


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The meaning and origin of words and phrases related to tea

The drink of tea is most often made from the dried leaves of the tea plant, which grows as a shrub or small tree. The leaves are infused in boiling water and the resultant brew may be served hot or cooled and iced. Tea has been drunk in China for at least 2000 years but it did not reach Europe, including Britain, until the 17th century which is also when the word  entered the English language. The word is thought to come from the Chinese (Amoy dialect) t'e. It was originally spelt and pronounced 'tay' in English and it is still pronounced in that way in many British dialects. By 1731 the terms teacup, tearoom, teaspoon and teaspoonful had all been added to the English language.   

Tea has spawned a number of popular phrases:

Just my cup of tea means something highly satisfactory and is used in a similar way to the phrase 'right up my street'. The expression reflects the universal popularity of tea as a drink. Alternatively, if something is not one's cup of tea, it is not something that interests you or that you like.

Not for all the tea in China means not at any price. Originating in Australian English at the end of the 19th century, the phrase recognizes that tea came to the West from China.

The word char, meaning tea, comes from the word ch'a in the Mandarin dialect of Chinese.

First recorded in 1925, Rosie Lee is cockney rhyming slang for tea. It was soon to be shortened to just Rosie. This shortened version, as well as the spelling Rosie Lee, is first recorded in J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions: ‘We’ll ‘ave the Rosie now, George’.

Tea is so popular in Britain that a number of phrases allude to tea without it being named. For example, ‘put the kettle on!and ‘Let’s have a brewboth refer to making a cup of tea whilst the word cuppa means a cup of tea itself. Cuppa originated as a shortening of cup o'. The o' (meaning 'of', as in the phrase "man o' war") having been replaced by an a. Although a cuppa is now taken to mean a cup of tea, it originally was only a shortening of cup o’ and its first recorded use is in 1925 in P.G. Wodehouse’s novel Sam the Sudden: ‘Come and have a cuppa coffee’.  

‘Shall I be mother?is a query heard at an afternoon tea when someone asks if they should pour the tea for everyone or sometimes slice and serve an accompanying cake. It originates from the person asking if they should play the role of a mother serving her family. The first use of to be mother meaning to serve food or drink is recorded in 1926 in a work of George Bernard Shaw’s The Glimpse of Reality (published 1926) in which Ferruccio says: ‘Come! You are dear people: charming people. Let us get to work at the supper. You shall be the mother of the family and give us our portions, Giulietta.’ The first specific use of the question and in relation to tea is in 1934 in English playwright and novelist Patrick Hamiliton’s Plains of Cement:‘Shall I be mother?’, said Ella, and started to pour out the tea.”

Tea leaf is cockney rhyming slang for thief and is first recorded in 1903.

Tea and sympathy means hospitality coupled with comfort given to someone who is in a distressed state. It was popularized by the title of a film of the same name that came out in 1956 and was an adaptation of Robert Anderson's 1953 stage play.

A disproportionate amount of fuss made about something trivial is referred to as a storm in a teacup. Apparently the phrase was not in use before the 19th century although as ‘a storm in a cream bowl’ the concept has been traced back to the 17th century. It has been suggested that it is based on a metaphor used by Cicero; "Excitabat fluctus in simpulo" meaning 'He whipped up waves in a ladel'. In the US, the equivalent is 'a tempest in a teapot'.

Widow Twankey is a pantomime dame (a woman played by a man) in the pantomime Aladdin. Widow Twankey (Aladdin's mother who runs a Chinese laundry) was named after twankey tea, an inferior grade of green tea and did not appear until 1861, around 150 years after the story of Aladdin (from the Middle-Eastern fables One Thousand and One Nights) was first published in England.

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Wake up and smell the coffee