tea, herbal tea, and tea-tea

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Thu May 14 20:20:09 UTC 2009

On a recent visit to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was discomfited by
a difference in lexical categorization. I knew that in the South "tea"
by default means "iced tea", sweet by default; and I noticed that
menus and signs made the distinction as "sweet" vs. "not sweet". What
I didn't expect was the following dialogue with a waitress in
Pittsboro, about half an hour west of Chapel Hill. We had driven down
from Philadelphia the day before and I was still tired:

Anything to drink?
Hot tea, please.
Herbal tea?
No, *tea* tea. Not camomile, not rose hip, not hibiscus. Earl Grey, or
even Lipton's, but *tea* tea.
... I'll get the manager.

I think the manager understood that I was not trying to be hostile,
just not expressing myself clearly. I'm used to having "tea" without
modification mean "an infusion of the leaves of the tea plant,
Camellia sinensis, possibly with admixtures", with similar beverages
made from other plants being called "herbal tea" (although C. sinensis
is just as much an herb as the others). The usual hypernym is also
"tea", and the ambiguity is resolved as "real tea" or "tea tea" or
"not herbal". This is apart from the default denotation of "tea" being
a hot drink.

As far as I could tell, in Pittsboro they did not subcategorize hot
infusions between C. sinensis and others, except by the specific
varieties: camomile, English Breakfast, etc. (And I'm pretty sure that
saying "Camellia sinensis" would only have compounded the confusion...
especially as we were in the Camellia Cafe!)

I observed the same pattern at a cafe in Chapel Hill. When I asked
about it, the staff person confirmed that all hot teas, whether C.
sinensis or not, were called "herbal teas" thereabouts.

A co-worker I told about this was surprised. She said that in Durham,
right next door to Chapel Hill, "herbal tea" is restricted to non-C.
sinensis, in the same way I know its use in Philly and NYC.

Mark Mandel

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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