Cha before tea: finding earlier mentions in a corpus of early English letters (part 1)

Cha before tea: finding earlier mentions in a corpus of early English letters (part 1)

Tea was first introduced to Western Europe in the mid 16th century by Portuguese and Dutch traders. From this also stems the spread of two different words for tea into European languages. The Portuguese, who operated from their exclusive trading post in Macao, propagated the local Cantonese form of chá. The Dutch on the other hand sourced their tea from Fujian, where it was known by the Min Nan Chinese term of te. In England, tea gained ground first as cha, a medicinal decoction to cure all ailments. Yet by the 1660s when the Portuguese queen consort, Catherine of Braganza, made tea fashionable at the royal court, the te form was already dominant.

This post discusses new antedatings for both cha and tea in English. They were discovered in the STRATAS project, funded by the Academy of Finland, which aims to develop new tools for scholars interested in language change. As previous research into historical lexis has focused on published texts by well-educated men, we wanted to complement the picture by studying a text type available to anyone who was literate: personal letters. Our material comes from the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC), an electronic collection of letters based on published editions digitized by a Helsinki-based team in the 1990s–2000s. The letters in the corpus date from 1400–1800, and the aim of the compilers was to represent both male and female writers of all social ranks and all regions of England throughout this 400-year period. The corpus includes social background information on the writer and recipient of each letter, which allows us to ask questions like ‘who creates and adopts new vocabulary in the history of English?’.

In the STRATAS project, we did a case study of new vocabulary used around the time of the English Civil War. We took a sample from the years 1640–1660 and focused on words that had not occurred in the corpus before that time. Then we semi-automatically compared the first attestation dates in our corpus vs. the OED, as well as contemporary published texts in Early English Books Online and the Burney and Nichols collections of pamphlets and newspapers (for more information on how we did this, you can watch our recent webinar). We found 12 OED antedatings in our corpus, three of which did not seem to occur earlier in any of the massive databases of published texts. Interestingly, one of the three words was that quintessentially English thing, tea. The OED first attestation (based on the first edition of the OED) is from 1655:

The CEEC first attestation is twelve years earlier, from 1643:

I have scarce bought any thinge for my selfe but an Indian Brewhouse for tee, which hath beene very good Black Lack worke, but it is all spoyled and rased and yett I payed exceeding deare for it.

William Howard, Viscount Stafford, to his mother, Lady Arundel, September 1643; see source edition
William Howard, Viscount of Stafford, by Anthony van Dyck (1638-40); Wikimedia Commons

William Howard was a royalist nobleman who was travelling on the continent, basically in exile, at the time. He was writing from Amsterdam to his mother, who was also staying in the Low Countries. We’re not really sure what an “Indian Brewhouse” is, but it’s clearly not an actual house, being lacquerware (which was frequently imported from the East Indies); rather, it seems to be some sort of a container for tea. It makes sense that being in the Low Countries, William and his mother would have known the Dutch word for tea. Furthermore, the word isn’t marked in any way in the text (the boldface was added by us), which indicates that it was quite a normal word for them – often, the new words we encounter in letters have been underlined or explained with another word as a sign of their novelty. It seems, then, that the upper social ranks of the time, at least those who travelled on the continent, could have been quite familiar with tea-drinking, so the early history of the word in English is not just about technical discussions of the plant but about everyday usage as well. It is this everyday usage that a corpus of personal letters gives us access to, and in this respect the CEEC has proved to be an excellent data source for new vocabulary.

The history of tea is present in the CEEC in other ways than first attestations. Letter-writers in the eighteenth century frequently mention or discuss tea. One such writer is Thomas Twining, grandson of the founder of the eponymous tea company. Although the eldest son, Twining did not like business and became a scholar and a clergyman instead. He corresponded on scholarly matters with Charles Burney (coming up with neologisms like jargonic), but of course also wrote frequently to his brothers and nephews, who did take on the family business. The letter in the header of this blog post is from Thomas to his brother Daniel Twining, dated November 8, 1762.

Stay tuned for the second part of this blog post, which will reveal the antedating we found for the earlier word for tea in English, cha.

Watch our recorded webinar The OED and historical text collections: discovering new words with Dr Säily and Dr Mäkelä to find about more about the STRATAS project and the OED in humanities research.

Header image: Thomas Twining (of the tea merchant family) to his brother Daniel Twining, 8 November 1762
(BL Add MS 39929, f. 4r; photo by Samuli Kaislaniemi)

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