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The low-down on high tea

Dinner is, for most English speakers, the main meal of the day. When the word was first used (in the 12th century) it referred to a midday meal, but it did not remain so for long. By the early 16th century it had become the first meal of the day, what we would call breakfast. No doubt those 16th century diners had their own reasons for this but it makes perfect sense etymologically as the verb to dine comes from the Late Latin disjejunare, “to breakfast” via the Old French disner. The Latin word disjejunare, incidentally, is quite literally “break fast”, being dis (“undo”) + jejunare (“to fast”) and also gave the French word déjeuner "breakfast"*. Obviously, dinner could not get any earlier than breakfast and after the 16th century it drifted through the day, being served later and later until, during the Victorian era, high society sat down to dinner at 10 p.m. Having one’s main meal of the day at such a late hour meant that many tummies were growling by late afternoon. To avoid that unpleasant hollow feeling, a new meal was invented. It was just a light snack, basically a few cakes and pastries served with the expensive new status symbol, tea. Consequently, the meal was called “tea”.

The name used for this drink tells a lot about how the word entered a language. Like French,Typhoo tea Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, Danish and Swedish (thé, te, , thee, thee, te andte, respectively) we acquired the name from Malay traders who called it te, a word they learned from the Amoy dialect of Chinese. The Portuguese, who call it cha, traded with Chinese who spoke the Mandarin dialect, in which it is called ch’a. Throughout the Middle East and India, the word is usually chai or some variant thereof. This is also the Russian word as tea reached Russia overland, via the Silk Road. In India, tea is brewed with milk and a mixture of spices called chai masala (Hindi for “tea spice”). This concoction is known as masala chai (Hindi, “spiced tea”) or simply as chai. As a result, the word chai has now entered the English language and it is not uncommon to see coffee bars offering something called chai tea (literally “tea tea”).

American high teaMany U.S. tea-shops offer something called high tea - usually a fancy affair with varietal teas, crustless cucumber sandwiches and dainty pastries, and a high price. It is our experience that these tea-shops invariably think they are providing an opportunity to sample an English tradition. They are not. This is not to say that the English don’t treat themselves to fine teas, crumpets and scones - far from it. But when they do they don’t call it high tea. In England high tea is a distinctly working-class expression which is used in the North of England to mean “dinner” and is synonymous with meat tea - tea with which meat is served. High tea is the main, cooked meal of the day, served in the early evening. Thus, fish and chips would qualify as high tea whether or not a pot of tea appears on the table.  We would like to introduce Americans to the term cream tea, which is what the British call tea served with crumpets, muffins, scones, jam and clotted cream, though the earliest recorded instance of this term comes from only 1964, at least so far!

But what about all those crumpets, muffins and scones? A crumpet is a round, flat bread withCrumpet many holes on its upper surface. The word crumpet first appears in the 14th century in the expression a crompid cakeCrompid here means “curled up” (just like cruller, by the way) which suggests that the original crompids were somewhat different from our crumpets. In the Midlands and West of England you might hear crumpets called pikelets. This is one of the very few instances of the English language borrowing a word from Welsh. The original is bara pyglyd (Welsh for “pitchy bread”, presumably from its color). The origin of muffin is not nearly as clear-cut but it is believed to be related to the Old French moufflet, “soft”. In recent years, scones have become popular in the U.S. though they have rapidly diverged from their English origins. Large, triangular and filled with fruit, they are a far cry from the small, round plain scones which demand to be slathered with Devonshire clotted cream and jam. Also, the American version of the scone rhymes with “bone” whereas the English kind (usually) rhymes with “gone”. The word scone is believed to be an abbreviation of the Middle Dutch schoonbrot or the Middle Low German schonbrot, both of which mean “fine bread”.

Well, we have to dash now, it’s almost tea-time. But just when is that, exactly? In case you think this question is too easy, we should point out that in Jamaica tea is the name given to breakfast.

*Jejunare also gave us jejunum, the "fasting" portion of the gut, so named as digested material does not remain there.  Jejune comes from the Latin verb, also, and originally had the meaning, in English, of "without food, fasting, hungry" (early 17th c.), and then "undernourished" (mid-17th c.), but there was also "unsatisfying, poor, barren" (early 17th c.), and then "puerile, childish" (19th c.; this meaning is thought to derive from the misconception that jejune is related to French jeune "young").

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