Tea Glossary and Tea Terms of the 18th and 19th Centuries

Samuel Pepys was the first person in Britain who documented drinking a cup tea, which he noted in his diary on 25 September 1660. At the time, it was an exotic drink and was in fact so exotic sometimes people didn’t really understand how to prepare it. A case in point is shown in the following story:

“A good housekeeper received a pound of tea as a present from a friend abroad; so she called her neighbors together to partake of this great rarity, prepared indeed, in a manner truly novel. First she boiled the herb and strained off the liquor, and then served it up in a dish, after it was properly seasoned with salt, butter, and other choice ingredients. Her guests, ignorant about it as herself, enjoyed it in this state of preparation.”[1]


tea glossary and tea terms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Samuel Pepys. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When tea arrived in England, no one probably ever imagined it would turn into the national drink. However, by the mid-1700s, according to Jane Pettigrew, “tea was widely drunk amongst even the poorest families in Britain.”[2] With all the tea drinking, people began needing some way to define everything associated with it and before long, there were publications defining tea terms. There was even cyclopedia related to tea that provided all the details from cultivation and packaging it to diseases and varieties.

I thought I’d provide my own tea glossary and tea terms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gathered from different documents of the 1700 and 1800s.

ASSAM TEA = A strong tea with a pungent malty flavor grown in India.

BITTER TEA or CHA TULCH = Tea from Cashmere boiled in a tinned copper pot to create a strong decoction and while boiling it salt is added. “The tea is used after meals more particularly after the early morning repast, which consists of plain or butter biscuit and this tea.”[3]
BITTER TEA or SEEN CHA = A green tea from Turkestan infused but only allowed to stand for four minutes. The lighter the infusion the more highly it was valued. This was prepared only in a Russian teapot and considered a great luxury.
BLACK TEA = Developed in China, this tea underwent the longest process or oxidation.
BLEERIE-TEA = A Cornwall term to describe a weak cup of tea.
BOHEA TEA = A species of the genus of THEA and the anglicized pronunciation of Wu-yi, mountains in the Fukien region from where this leaf was gathered. In addition, this and CONGO TEA were the top imported teas between 1870 to 1880 in the United Kingdom. 
BOX HARRY = Slang term for tea and dinner at one meal.
BRICK TEA = A compressed tea usually made from old leaves (rather than young ones) pruned in cold weather and formed into bricks that were then dried to prevent mildew. One book described it as:

“A common kind of tea prepared … by softening refuse leaves, twigs, and dust with boiling water, and then pressing the compound into large slabs like bricks.”[4]

CAFFEINE = A crystalline alkaloid found in coffee, tea, and two other vegetable preparations that stimulates the nervous system.
CAMELLIA SINENSIS = An native evergreen plant of China previously known as Thea Sinesis that was a botanical variety. Both green and black teas came from it, but Europeans were unaware of the difference until the mid-nineteenth century.

tea glossary and tea terms - Tea plant

Tea Plant (Camellia Sinensis) with cross-section of the flower (lower left) and seeds (lower right). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

CAPERS = A variety of tea imported into England that “may be generally told by the leaves being rolled up into little lumps with starch or gum, as a class they are much adulterated, and, in fact, can hardly be called genuine tea.”[5]
CATLAP = A Cornwall slang term sometimes given to weak tea.
CEYLON TEA = In 1824, a tea plant was smuggled into Ceylon by the British from China and planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya for non-commercial purposes. Further experimenting and the establishment of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon in 1854, resulted in an increased interest in tea. Then, in 1867, James Taylor started a tea plantation on the Loolecondera estate in Kandy and CEYLON TEA became the reference for teas grown in Sri Lanka.
CHURNED TEA = A tea from Cashmere that was prepared like BITTER TEA but was churned with milk afterwards. It was highly prized and used primarily for Cashmere visitors.
COFFEE-LEAF TEA = Henry Cottam of Ceylon wrote that he was trying to manufacture what he termed “Coffee-leaf tea.” Apparently, some people thought it “wish-washy” and practical unpalatable because it lacked both the aroma and the delicate flavor of real tea. However, Cottam stated of it in 1882:

“One great advantage coffee-leaf tea would have over ordinary tea is, that instead of having a tendency to create nervousness, it contains strengthening properties; this fact was endorsed by a Medical Journal … a month ago.”[6]

CONGO or CONGOU TEA = A corruption of kung-fou or cong-foo, indicated that its preparation relied on great care and labor. In addition, this and BOHEA TEA were the top imported teas between 1870 to 1880 in the United Kingdom.
CREAM TEA or VUMAH CHA = A black tea from Tukestan boiled in a tinned copper pot and much stronger than ordinary tea. Cream was added either while boiling or after it was poured into the teapot. It was used in Turkestan in the morning only with bits of bread soaked into it and eaten.

DARJEELING TEA = Traditionally, it was a high-quality black tea grown in the Himalayan Mountains of India. Tea planting in the district of Darjeeling began in 1841 after Archibald Campbell, a civil surgeon of the Indian Medical Service, brought seeds of the Chinese CAMELLIA SINESIS from the Kumaon Kingdom and began to experiment with them in Darjeeling. Commercial development then began during the 1850s.

EARL GREY TEA = A blend of tea thought to be named after Charles, 2nd Earl Grey who was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834. Grey reputedly received a gift of tea flavored with bergamot oil from a grateful Chinese mandarin, and when his supply ran out, he asked his tea merchant at the TWINING COMPANY to recreate it for him. It then became a popular staple of Twinings.
EAST INDIA COMPANY = A private company that was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region. It turned into a monopoly for British trade with the East and produced a profound effect on the history of tea.

GREEN TEA = A coarse tea sold in Kumaon and Gurhwal to traveling merchants without packing.
GOLDEN LYON = The symbol used by THOMAS TWINING that he placed above his tea and coffee shop located at 216 Strand. The lion became the emblem of the TWININGS COMPANY and remains there today.
GRUDGLINGS or GROOSHANS = Term used in Cornwall to describe the sediment left in a cup of tea or the dregs.
GUNPOWDER TEA = This tea acquired its name from its dark gray irregular-shaped balls that looked like early gunpowder pellets. It was dried at a higher temperature than other teas and therefore contained less hygroscopic moisture.

HORNIMAN, JOHN = In 1826, Horniman devised the idea to pre-package tea in pre-sealed, lead-lined tea packets. His tea packets were not an immediate hit with grocers, and, so, initially, he sold his tea only to pharmacies and apothecaries.
HYSON TEA = A pale, young tea meaning “flourishing spring.” Like gunpowder tea, it was dried at a higher temperature than other teas and therefore contained less hygroscopic moisture.

JAVA TEA = A tea harvested in Java. The first plantation was created in 1827 with seeds sent from Decima in Japan in 1826. However, according to most Londoners, it was a weak tea they described as being “very good looking,” small, and well-rolled.
JOHORE TEA = A soft, bright tea leaf and a hybrid of the Assam seed.
JUTE OF TEA = Slang term in Cornwall for a small quantity of tea.

LICENSED VICTUALLERS’ TEA ASSOCIATION = An Act was passed which allowed any shopkeeper to sell wine and spirits and which resulted in licensed victuallers finding their interests in jeopardy. Therefore, according to one book:

“They thought that, by selecting a few from their body who, assisted by gentlemen of large experience as Tea-tasters and long residence in China, should apply themselves to the purchase of good and serviceable Teas, they would be able to compete most successfully in that commodity.[7]  

They then formed the association in September of 1867, which proved to be successful. The also created a trademark which was represented by a “drayman on one side and a Chinese on the other, holding shields; underneath the motto, Dum vivo bibo (while I live I drink).”[8] In addition, they used different covers or wrappers to pack their tea according to its quality.

tea glossary and tea terms - Licensed Victualler's Tea Association

Licensed Victuallers’ Tea Association trademark representation. Public domain.

LIE TEA = A tea mixed with willow and other spurious leaves into genuine teal leaves and then fraudulently sold as tea. It looked like tea but was easily detected by a tea taster as not being good tea.
LONDON TEA AUCTION = Auctions held daily in London with the first one held quarterly under the EAST INDIAN COMPANY. They were held in Leadenhall Street beginning in 1679, but in 1834 after the EAST INDIA COMPANY ceased to be a commercial enterprise, the auction was moved to Mincing Lane. Auctions lasted until 1998.

MALOO MIXTURE = It was a medley of “used tea-leaves, the leaves or various other plants, and rubbish of all kinds, manufactured in Shanghai and shipped to England as tea.”[9]
MASH = Referred to pouring hot water over tea leaves.
MEDICINE TEA =This tea was composed of coarse leaf and stalks, mixed with various kinds of medicinal herbs.
MOTE SPOONS = They functioned in three ways: as a measuring device, a skimmer, and a prodding device. They were made of silver with small holes in the bowl and a thin long handle with a pointed end. These were replaced by the late 1700s with teaspoons.

OOLONG TEA = This large-leaf tea came from China and was described thusly:

“A roughly made tea with an unassorted appearance of a light greenish colour. It is briskly fired and has a taking scent when crushed in the hand. In liquor, it draws a light coloured water and is pleasant to drink.”[10]

ORANGE PEOKE TEA = A large leafed tea that had thin, long, wiry leaves and contained yellow or white tips from the leaf bud.

PARAGUAY TEA = A tea substitute used in South America and also called YERBA MATE.
PEKOE TEA = This tea from the Chinese Pai-hao, means white down or hair, because it was picked from young spring leaf-buds that still contained down upon them.
POUCHONG = A type of tea so called because of how it was packed.

SHARD OF TEA = Slang term used in Cornwall for a cup of tea.
SINGLO TEA = Also called “Pi-cha,” or “skin tea,” it was the name of the mountain range from where this particular leaf was cultivated.
SLOP BOWLS = Usually part of a tea service that allowed tea drinkers to pour cold tea into them before refilling their cup with fresh, hot tea. They also held the dregs of tea and any errant leaves left behind from the bottom of a cup. For more on tea service and equipage, click here.
SNAP = A reference to a light meal, dinner, or tea.
SOUCHONG TEA = A dark tea from Seao-chug that means “little sprouts.” It was a variety of teas that supposedly contained the finest flavor.
SPLIT-PEA = A slang word for tea.

tea glossary and tea terms

Tea Set. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

TANNIN = A chemical component of tea responsible for its astringent and palate-cleansing character.
TAY or TEY = An old pronunciation for tea when it first arrived in Britain.
TEA ACT 1773 = An unpopular piece of legislation among American colonists that was devised to ensure that they paid taxes on the tea they consumed. A protest ensued by American colonists in what became known as the Boston Tea Party and resulted in tea cargoes being destroyed and the idea that it was unpatriotic for the colonists to drink tea.
TEA BAG = An accidentally invention by a New York tea importer named Thomas Sullivan whose bags began to appear commercially around 1904 but prior to that had been shipping out his tea in silk bags around the world.
TEA BALLS = A device that held tea leaves with a chain attached thereby allowing the tea to be suspended during the steeping process.
TEA BLIGHT = Crop damage caused by insects or fungoids. Some of the destructive insects at the time were the caterpillar, “The Borer,” Orange Beetle, grubs, spiders, and what was termed a “Tea Bug,” an insect that when full grown was about the size of mosquito, had no jaws, only a sucker with wing-cases that when folded formed an “x” and when open were used to vibrate.

Image of the Tea Bug. Public domain.

TEA-BOARD = Tea tray.
TEA CADDY = Chests that held fresh tea in homes. They were sometimes divided into sections and usually locked to prevent unauthorized taking of the tea, which was costly even into the late 1700s. Caddies were made from such woods as mahogany, ebony, rosewood, coromandel, fruitwood, or burr yew.
TEA CADDY SPOON = A spoon used to measure out tea leaves from a tea caddy before they were put into the teapot.
TEA CHEST = Wooden chests that were originally lead-lined and used for shipping and transporting tea.
TEACUP = The cup into which hot tea was poured and the cup from which people drank their tea.
TEA DEALER = A retailer of tea who sold mostly coffee, tea, and groceries. According to one British Trade book in 1872, “There are about 120,000 licensed tea dealers in the kingdom.”[11]
TEA DRESS or TEA GOWN = Popular gowns in the late 1800s that were half-way between a wrap and a ball gown and were comfortable, flowing, and diaphanous.
TEA GARDENS = Pleasure gardens designed for refreshments and strolling, such as Ranelagh Gardens or Vauxhall Gardens.
TEA-GOOBERS = A slang name for tea tasters or to indicate every available space that was filled with tea.
TEA-GRATHING or TEA-TATTLING = Classified as mid-Yorkshire term for tea things.
TEA-JACKET = A multi-use jacket in the late 1800s that could be worn to the theatre, at home for dinner, and, of course, when pouring afternoon tea.
TEA-KITCHEN = A term used in Sheffield for a tea-urn.
TEA-POT = The vessel with a handle for making and pouring tea.
TEA-POY or TEPOY = An small ornamental pedestal table that was handy for tea because it had a lifting top with two lidded compartments, one for storing tea and the other for mixing dried tea.
TEA ROOM or TEA SHOPS = Popular spots beginning in 1864 where people could share tea and be social.
TEA ROSE = A popular garden rose derived from Rosa odorata that has repeat-flowering roses and is named for its fragrance that said to be reminiscent of Chinese black tea, although that is not always the case.
TEA-SAUCER = The stand on which the TEACUP was placed.
TEA-SPOON = A spoon used for stirring tea.
TEA-TABLE = A table that was small and round that tea was served on.
TEA URN = A teapot or urn with a gravity-fed tap at the bottom.
THÉ DANSANTE = A slang term that perhaps the famous French wax sculptor Madame Tussaud knew that meant in French “dancing tea.”  It was an invitation to friends (both male and female) to take tea and have a dance afterwards.
THEA = A genus of plants of camellia (camellieoe) in the family theaceae (Ternströmiaceoe) that was so named from the slightly altered Chinese name of the dried herb that formed the almost universal beverage of the British Isle by the late 1800s. “It is differently named in different parts of China, as Tcha, or Cha, also Tha, whence we have Tsia, The, and Tea. In Persian works in use in India, tea is called Cha-Khutai, or Tea of Cathay.”[12]
TWINING, THOMAS = He established and founded TWINING COMPANY in London. He initially sold coffee but then included teas, and quickly garnered a reputation for having some of the finest blends in London. Soon he was selling more dry tea than brewed. He named his tea and coffee house the Golden Lyon in 1717 and his shop was one of the first in London where women could buy tea. His grandson, Richard Twining, explained in 1784:

“In my grandfather’s time … it was the custom for Ladies and Gentlemen to come to the shop, ad to order their own Teas – the chests used to be spread out, and when my grandfather had mixed some of them together, in the presence of his customers, they were used to taste the Tea: and mixing was varied till it suited the palates of the purchasers.”[13]

TWININGS COMPANY = All the various teas sold through Twinings that was established by THOMAS TWINING.

UCHAIN = An old name for YOUNG HYSON TEA.

WAITER = A tea tray.

YERBA MATE TEA = A beverage that was used in South America and also called PARAGUAY TEA.
YOUNG HYSON TEA = From Yu-chien meaning “before the rains” because it was picked early in the season.


  • [1] Licensed Victuallers’ Tea Association, A History of the Sale and Use of Tea in England (London: Licensed Victuallers’ Tea Association, 1870), p. 13.
  • [2] Pettigrew, A Social History of Tea (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd., 2001), p. 83.
  • [3] The Tea Cyclopaedia: Articles on Tea, Tea Science, Blights, Soils and Manures , Cultivation, Buildings Manufacture &c. ; with Tea Statistics, (London: W.B. Whittingham, 1882) p. 34.
  • [4] H. A. Giles, A Glossary of Reference on Subjects Connected with the Far East (Hong Kong: Lane, Crawford, 1886), p. 21.
  • [5] The Tea Cyclopaedia, p. 18.
  • [6] The Tea Cyclopaedia, p. 34.
  • [7] Licensed Victuallers’ Tea Association, p. 16.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 1.
  • [9] H. A. Giles, p. 142.
  • [10] The Tea Cyclopaedia, p. 287.
  • [11] P. L. Simmonds, The Commercial Dictionary of Trade Products, Manufacturing and Technical Terms (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1872), p. 375.
  • [12] The Tea Cyclopaedia, p. 1.
  • [13] Pettigrew, p. 39,

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