Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer Content

The Etymology of Tea

Posted on 05/24/2023

You Say Cha, I Say Tea

WhatCha talking about? Tea, of course! Have you ever noticed that some cultures don’t refer to tea as tea but call it cha or chai? Why is that and how did we start calling it tea?

Etymology, the fine study of words, can help us with these questions. Etymology helps us understand the origin of the words we use as well as the cultures that surround us.

Tea was first discovered in China, thousands of years ago in 2732 BC, by Emperor Shen Nung who happened upon the amazing tea leaf.

With tea originating in China, the word cha, the Chinese way to say tea, is recognized in many varieties of the Chinese language.

That being said, trade routes and globalization played a huge role in changing how we all refer to our beloved beverage.

Cha as the term for tea is still known by cha, chay or ocha in many cultures today.

The Portuguese also used the term ch’a when trading through ports in Macao and were one of the first along with the Dutch to do trade with China.

The trade routes most prominently associated with this term were India, Japan and Persia, as well as trade routes out of Tibet and Turkey.

The term cha is still used in countries, such as Ukraine, today. India uses the word chay while Japan still uses ocha.

So how did the term tea come to be? In the Min Nan dialect of the Chinese language, we see the pronunciation of TE, or tea, most widely spoken in the coastal areas of Fujian province. While many coastal towns use TE, or tea, inland areas use cha.

The Dutch had trade routes along the coast of Fujian province and used the local Amoy term tay for the word tea. The Dutch changed it to tea and brought it into Europe where it expanded and became the prevalent term for the drink in most of Europe as well as Spain and Italy.

At Upton Tea Imports, we offer a lovely black tea from Fujian province — ZK101: Fujian Minhong Gongfu Congou, if you would like to experience a little taste from this fantastic province.

Tea or cha, whatever term you choose to use, make it a memorable and wonderful experience.

Thanks and be well, dear reader…


Sonnad, Nikhil. “Tea If by Sea, Cha If by Land: Why the World Has Only Two Words for Tea.” The Language Nerds, 2019,

Richardson, Bruce. “How Did Tea Get Its Name?” The Boston Tea Party Tea Masters Blog, Accessed 14 July 2022.

Your browser ({brow_name}) is out of date. Update your browser for a faster and more secure experience. Learn More