by Emeric Harney March 04, 2021 4 min read 7 Comments
In addition to drinking tea, the world’s most perfect beverage, you’ve undoubtedly heard or used some interesting phrases with the word “tea” without really stopping to think about where they came from. Always happy to be a source of enlightenment, we thought we’d look at some popular tea idioms and share their origin stories. Pour yourself a cuppa as we get ready to spill the tea on tea sayings! Seems like a good place to start is with…
Spill the Tea
Meaning: Get the real scoop, the good intel.
Origin: This one has a really interesting history. According to Merriam-Webster, the phrase has its origins in drag culture and has absolutely nothing to do with the drink. One of the first-known uses of the phrase comes from the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the book, the Black drag queen Lady Chablis says in response to a question about why she avoids certain men who react with violence when they “find out her T,” she explains what she means: “My T. My thing, my business, what’s goin’ on in my life.” In Black drag culture, “T” is short for “truth.” As the saying spread in culture, “T” and “tea” became interchangeable. Who knew?
Not My Cup of Tea
Meaning: No thanks, I am NOT interested. Definitely swiping left.
Origin: As with many tea sayings, this one has its origin in England, land of the most ardent tea enthusiasts. It started in the late 1800s when the British started using the phrase “my cup of tea” to describe something they very much liked. Before you knew it, saying things like “That Prince William is very much my cup of tea” became commonplace...so it only makes sense that throwing a “not” in front of the saying would follow. What better way to say that something is totally distasteful than to say it’s not my cup of tea?
Storm in a Teacup/Tempest in a Teapot
Meaning: Making a big deal out of something insignificant; making more of something than is warranted.
Origin: It is believed that this saying has its roots all the way back to the writings of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero in De Legibus, circa 52BC. In that, the phrase “Excitabat fluctus in simpulo” is most often translated as “He was stirring up billows in a ladle.” While other cultures have their own versions, such as “A storm in a glass of water” in the Netherlands and “A tempest in a potty” in Hungary (really, Hungary?), eventually the British, of course, coined their own version as “A storm in a teacup,” although an early English version can be found in the Duke of Ormond’s letters to the Earl of Arlington in 1678 as such: “Our skirmish...is but a storm in a cream bowl.” The variation “A tempest in a teapot” is used mostly in the U.S., with storm/teacup being favored by the Brits. (Cicero, by the way, was beheaded by his political enemies which he, no doubt, considered something of a tempest in a teapot.)
Tea and Sympathy
Meaning: Showing kindness to someone in need of support.
Origin: It is believed that this saying was inspired by the 1953 play “Tea and Sympathy” by Robert Anderson. The storyline centered around a young man who was bullied and maligned by his fellow classmates regarding his masculinity, and the empathy the wife of one of the school’s instructors felt toward his situation who uttered the line, “All you’re supposed to do is every once in a while give the boys a little tea and sympathy.”
Not for All the Tea in China
Meaning: Not at any price. Absolutely not. No way, José.
Origin: As you tea historians among us are aware, China once absolutely ruled the tea industry. They had all the tea, and if you wanted any you had to pay exorbitant prices. As owners of a tea monopoly, they could charge whatever they wanted, and they did just that. (See ourPart One andPart Two posts on Tea & War for a quick but interesting history lesson on the subject.) With China still being the foremost producer of tea, the saying that originated in the late 19th/early 20th century still holds. While the origin of the phrase cannot be verified -- many think it originated in Australia in the 1890s -- its meaning cannot be more clear. Underno circumstances are you interested, no matter what is offered.
I Could Murder a Cup of Tea
Meaning: I want it real bad. Gotta have it.
Origin: Again, Britain. This very British phrase isn’t limited to tea but is most often used in relation to needing a cuppa in the most urgent way possible. And while it sounds decidedly negative, it most definitely is not. While some speculate that the use of the word “murder” in this way could have come into existence in relation to “killing off” a beer, or an empty bottle of beer or wine being referred to as a “dead soldier,” there is no definitive proof that’s how the phrase came into being. All we know is that, asdiehard tea fans, we completely get the sentiment. Cheers!
Do you have another tea phrase that you or someone you know uses regularly? Some intriguing saying that your charming grandmother used to use? We’d love to hear it! Please respond in the comment section below.
April 01, 2021
My mom used to always ask us " What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?" whenever we brought up something random in a conversation. My sisters and I still say it to the confusion of others.
March 24, 2021
Hello Friends, I can not hold a candle to what you have said in the above posts. I will say this—When I was a child we had tea when we were too sick to have anything else. It was not the best of tea either. Now, I only wish some of my family members could see me with Harney Teas—I can not get enough. The minute I am half done with a tin—I am ordering more. I heard my caregiver tell me
“Are you sure you are not English”? lolol The herbal and non herbal treats have spoiled me to stop sit down and have a new tea or a favorite—every single tea is my favorite!!! I can not say one tea is better than the other. Yes, I am nuts over tea from Harney & Sons. I went to another place to purchase tea and I am so unhappy—Back to Harney & Sons!! I will never stray again!! Thank you
Harney Clan—I hardly drink coffee anymore. I use to work with Paul Mitchell Sr. and I drank a pot of coffee (approx.) a day or more. Now, I barely drink a cup. I have all the expresso makers and all you can image but, I am hooked on the Harney Clans Tea!! I hope to have my Lupus Disease in remission because I am flushing myself to good to great health,
Harney & Sons
Michele McNeill aka mickey
March 24, 2021
Very interesting. Never give it a second thought. But Tea does Rule!!!!!!!
March 24, 2021
I have never been able to drink any kind of coffee. My friends and relatives try to get me into Starbucks for Coffee. I always tell them, I" would not go in the store for coffee for all the tea in China!" Love tea!!
March 11, 2021
“Nip it in the bud” could be from gardeners, but tea people also?
March 11, 2021
I love your historic tidbits about tea. Thanks.
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September 15, 2022
My Grandmother used to say take tea ans see!