chai

We had just settled in at the Metaphor Café (“Service with a Simile”) – Daryl, Margot, Jess, and I – and were giving our orders to Jess, who had offered to go up and get our beverages.

“I’ll have a chai tea latte,” Daryl said.

Margot glanced at Daryl with a look of distaste. She put on a saccharin smile and turned to Jess. “I’ll have a coffee café au lait with milk.”

Jess arched her eyebrow just a little and paused for a moment. “…Regular with caffeine, or decaf without caffeine?”

“Why, regular with caffeine, of course.”

I couldn’t be bothered to play along. “Decaf latte, please, high-fat milk.”

“Surely,” Margot said, “you mean a decaf coffee caffè latte with milk without caffeine.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Daryl said.

“You started it,” said Margot.

Daryl threw up his hands. “OK, yes, I know, chai means ‘tea’.”

“Specifically spiced tea with milk,” Margot said. “You might as well have asked for salsa sauce, or entered a PIN number into an ATM machine.”

“The pleonasm police are out,” Daryl said. “I shall be denied entry into high so-chai-tea.”

“Actually,” I said, as Jess sidled away to go place the orders, “chai is just Hindi for ‘tea’. Tea with spices is masala chai in India. And that’s normally made with milk, yes. So it’s like salsa, which is just Spanish for ‘sauce’ – in English, the word is used with a more specific meaning that’s further specified in the original language.”

“But that’s the way they’ve always had tea in India, isn’t it?” Margot said. “From time immemorial?”

“Well, from before you were born, anyway,” I said. “But tea was grown almost exclusively in China until the end of the 1800s, when the British began cultivating it on a large scale in India in order not to be dependent on China. And the Indians themselves didn’t really drink it until the British-owned Indian Tea Association encouraged industries to provide tea breaks, in the early 1900s. That’s when the chai wallahs with their tea carts started circulating. But the masala chai was a local invention that stretched out the tea leaves and added some spice. Literally and figuratively.”

Chai is very similar to the Mandarin word for ‘tea’,” Daryl said, “cha.” (He said it properly, with a rising tone.) “Clearly cognate. So how did we get tea? The word, I mean.” He held up a finger and pulled out his iPad to look it up.

“From Malay,” I said.

“But tea cures your malaise,” Daryl quipped as he typed and scrolled.

I got up and did a few fluid moves. “So does chai tea. I mean tai chi.”

“Is that what that was,” Margot said. “I thought it was the cha-cha-cha.”

“Oh,” said Daryl, showing his iPad screen, “/te/ is also from the Amoy dialect of Chinese. Probable source of the Malay word.”

“Sure,” I said. “And the phonological relation is clear. Stop and affricate, both voiceless, same location – tip of the tongue – and the vowels easily transformed one to another, /a/ to /aI/ and /e/ and, in English, /e/ to /i/ – just getting more and more steeped. Every language that I’m aware of that has a word for ‘tea’ bases the word on one of those three streams: cha, chai, te. But the relation isn’t obvious to most non-linguists.”

“It still doesn’t excuse the redundancy,” Margot said.

“Redundancy is often a good idea for clarity,” I said. “I too find chai tea a little grating, but I understand why they do it – they need to specify that it’s tea, for those who don’t know, and at the same time the word chai has a specificity and that nice bit of the exotic that spiced wouldn’t.”

“And the latte for the milk,” Daryl said.

Jess arrived with the beverages. “Wallah!” she said, setting down Daryl’s chai.

“That’s voilà,” said Margot.

“No,” said Daryl, “that’s the chai wallah.”

Thanks (and l’chai-m!) to Kathe Lieber for asking for a bit of chai, cha, tea.

3 responses to “chai

  1. Carolyn Bishop

    Heehee! I kept thinking you were going to work “tai chi” into the usual muddle!

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