Wood on Words: Grab a cup and take in some tea time

Barry Wood

Tea is more than a beverage in many lands. It’s part of the social fabric.

The World Book says it all began in China about 2737 B.C., when, according to legend, an emperor introduced the use of tea. The earliest mention of the beverage in Chinese literature is in A.D. 350.

China has always been one of the top producers of tea, inspiring the phrase “not for all the tea in China.” When people say that, they mean not for anything or any amount. The quantity of tea in China has fluctuated through the years, but it has always been quite a lot.

In various Asian cultures, “tea ceremonies” can be elaborate affairs, sometimes associated with traditional weddings.

The title of the best-selling 2006 book “Three Cups of Tea” refers to a proverb of the Balti people, an ethnic group of Tibetan descent that one of the authors encountered in the India-Pakistan region. In essence, the proverb says that by the third time someone has shared tea with a Balti, that person has progressed from stranger to honored guest to family.

India also rates high among tea producers, as does Turkey, which has risen rapidly among the ranks of per-capita tea consumption as well. In that category, it has close competition from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Tea was introduced to Europe in about 1600 by importers who brought it in from the Far East, and it became the national drink of Great Britain before the end of that century.

In the British culture, “tea” is also a meal — two of them, in fact. The “afternoon tea” is a lighter meal, traditionally served at 4 o’clock.

For people who have to work longer hours, there’s “high tea,” which is a more substantial meal served in the early evening. Although some people might associate “high tea” with “high society,” it’s actually the working-class version.

And from Britain we also get the old-fashioned phrase “tea and sympathy.”

When it comes to heated drinks in the United States, however, coffee is more our “cup of tea.” And even before the explosion in popularity of Starbucks and other specialized purveyors, coffee had its own contributions to culture and language.

Who hasn’t enjoyed that workday oasis known as the “coffee break,” with or without coffee?

We also have the “coffee shop” and the “coffeehouse.” You can get a cup of joe at either, but the former is likely to feature more food while the latter offers nourishment for the soul — if your soul likes poetry or folk music, for example.

There are “teahouses,” too, as well as “tearooms,” “tea carts,” “tea trays” and “tea tables,” but a “coffee table” has its own kind of book. A “coffee-table book” is often oversized and underwritten and is meant to be seen and not read.

From Germany we get the “kaffeeklatsch,” usually Americanized to “coffee klatch.” The second portion of the word comes from the German for “gossip,” so logically a “coffee klatch” is “an informal gathering for drinking coffee and talking.”

As with “tea,” a “coffee” also can be “a reception or social gathering,” but its purpose is commonly to promote or introduce a cause or a candidate.

In Britain, then, “tea time” is generally mealtime. In the U.S., we have “tee time,” which is when a round of golf begins. 

Correction time

There was no column last week because I was on vacation, but in the previous column I made a mistake.

A reader pointed out that one of the two oilmen involved in the Teapot Dome affair was Edward L. Doheny. I had the last name wrong.

Either I couldn’t read my own writing, or I just wasn’t paying attention. Neither one is good.

Contact Barry Wood at or read his blog at