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Tom’s words

Escapades in etymology

By Tom Chatfield   October 2008

There’s something oxymoronic—something faintly deceiving—that has always bothered me about the phrase “herbal tea.” As a prodigious consumer of “real” tea, I’ve never felt quite right blurring its boundaries with such ersatz, uncaffeinated stuff. Until recently, I lacked the vocabulary to set my sensibilities at ease. But now, thanks to the pretensions of a local café, I have finally learned to name my enemies. They are tisanes—a noun that encompasses any kind of herbal infusion not made from tea leaves, and that derives from the Greek ptisane (an ancient barley water), via Latin and French.

Disappointingly, however, the word tea…

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