The Tea

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 19

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I have reached that age where I don't know what the hell anything means anymore. In this case, one of my high-school-aged students wanted to know what that's the tea meant. I asked for context, and she showed me this:

That's Sophie Turner, the young actor best known for playing Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones and Jean Grey in the (newer) X-men movies. And that's the tea has become something of a signature line for her via her Instagram account. She uses the stories function to record short videos of herself making a comment on something and then using and that's the tea as a kind of punctuation. It's fun and it's an interesting bit of pop culture that I had absolutely no clue about, which is one of the fun parts of teaching high-school kids.

But, anyway. Where does "the tea" come from and what does it mean? Well, in Ms. Turner's (er, I guess it's Mrs. Jonas now?) case, she uses it to mean something between and that's the truth and and that's the gossip. And that's more or less how everyone else is using it, too:

From Urban Dictionary:

tea

the best kind of gossip, typically shared between friends. it’s a bonding tool for people of all ages. tea is usually about someone you know, but can also extend to celebrities random internet scandals, etc.

The Daily Dot, in an article called, appropriately enough, "What does 'tea' mean?" traces the usage of tea as gossip from the gay and drag communities through a meme created from a Lipton's commercial featuring Kermit the Frog to the modern rise of various pop-culture figures sipping cups of tea (Morticia Addams for the win, please) to its feature role in a recent controversy in women's soccer.

A few other notable usages have crept up over the past few years, although some, like Larry Wilmore's "Weak Tea" on the short lived "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" are far enough removed that I, for one, did not realize that they shared a lineage with tea meaning gossip. In that particular case, I had taken the "weak" part of "weak tea" as the key phrase, meaning that whatever the tea was that week was well, not strong, not good, not worth having.

Mirriam-Webster adds several usages and derivations to their explanation of tea -

When it was first popularized in general print, it could be spelled T or tea and it didn't refer to the drink

and

It appears that T, also spelled tea, had a double-edged meaning in black drag culture. It could refer to a hidden truth, as Chablis uses it, and it could also refer to someone else's hidden truth—that is, gossip

But tea has a fascinating history and one that isn't all that uncommon, really. There are any number of words, phrases, and idioms that spread from one sub-culture to another via repetition and adaptation. That is, more or less, how language works. What's interesting to me, in this case, is that my usual sources are not all that useful. Instead, I found myself referring to sites like Scary Mommy and Hello Giggles, not to mention Quora, Reddit, and, of course, Urban Dictionary.

Most of my research starts with Wikipedia or the Oxford English Dictionary. And these days, Wikipedia is easing towards trusted source status due to its insistence on citations and sources. (Although most of academia still insists on authors referencing the original work Wikipedia cites rather than citing Wikipedia itself.) In this case, though, and with most modern slang, even Wikipedia can't keep up with all the changes and adaptations. It all just moves too fast.

Blogs and community-driven, opinion-based sites like Urban Dictionary and Quora can keep up very easily though. So, we have a situation where the authority behind a given definition or explanation is a general consensus. A user uploads their thought to the sites and other users expand or debate that opinion via all the social media tools were all now too-familiar with (likes, upvotes, replies, etc.) Over time, more research-driven authorities will conduct corpus or discourse examinations and something that is true because everyone more-or-less agrees that it is true becomes something that is true because the trusted authority says it is true. It's a fine line sometimes.

And that's the tea.

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Origin(s):

From Dictionary.com

Best served piping hot, tea is slang for "gossip," a juicy scoop, or other personal information.

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Notable Events of the Year 1991

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Since we’re talking about tea, here are a few types I enjoy as well as an interesting long read about why there are only two words for tea (tea or cha) across several different languages. Enjoy!

Next Time: For the win. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.