Language pet hates

I’ve just been trying to avoid the temptation to stir up an edit war at Wikipedia. The ‘tea’ article mentions the fact that the word ‘tea’ is sometimes used for herbal infusions other than those made from the tea plant, before stating that the article is about teas made from tea.

This was what one of the introductory paras said when I found it:

The expression “herbal tea” or simply “tea” is frequently used for any fruit or herb infusion, even if it does not contain Camellia sinensis (such as “rosehip tea” or “chamomile tea”). The proper term for these beverages is tisane, although this is very rarely used. This article is concerned with the “true” teas; that is, those made of Camellia sinensis.

I changed that to this:

The expression “herbal tea” or simply “tea” is also used, by extension, for any fruit or herb infusion, even if it does not contain Camellia sinensis (such as “rosehip tea” or “chamomile tea”). This article is concerned with the “true” teas; that is, those made using parts of the tea plant.

which someone has changed to this:

The expression ‘herbal tea’ is often used to refer to fruit or herb infusions containing no actual tea (such as ”rosehip tea” or ”chamomile tea”). A more precise (though less common) term for this is ”tisane”, or ”herbal infusion” (both bearing an implied contrast with ”tea”). This article is concerned with preparations and uses of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which is the etymological origin of the term ”tea”.

Although this bloke has made the concession of saying ‘a more precise term’ rather than ‘the proper term’, he clearly feels, really, that it’s just plain wrong to call something a ‘tea’ if it doesn’t have tea in it. This is despite the fact that many native English speakers who drink herbal tea regularly have probably never even heard the word ’tisane’, and despite the fact that the word ‘tea’ has been used in English to refer to both kinds of drinks for 350 years (1655 is the earliest citation for both meanings in my Shorter OED).

I’m not disputing that the word ‘tea’ is derived from the tea plant, or even that there’s some potential for confusion – but I still think that ‘herbal tea’ is the normal modern English term for a hot drink made by steeping leaves, and if I was teaching English as a second language it’s the vocab I would teach. There’s nothing to stop people using the word ’tisane’ if they prefer, as long as they don’t insist that their pedantry is evidence of intellectual or linguistic superiority.

There seem to be such a lot of people for whom some usage or another is like fingernails on a blackboard, and who really care about trivia like split infinitives and singular they. I feel sorry for them when they’re not annoying the hell out of me. Their shibboleths may be arbitrary and wrong-headed, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it must be terribly wearing for them to be constantly chafed by this stuff. I think the most stupid argument I’ve ever encountered was when someone at university told me that the ‘correct’ plural of ‘octopus’ was ‘octopodes’ – because it’s from the Greek, not the Latin.

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