Etymology and Sympathy

(The following blog contains colourful language.)

Change places! It’s tea time.

In Japan afternoon tea is not quite the same. Green tea and red bean tarts are agreeable, but are no replacement for Earl Grey and a scone. Therefore you can imagine my excitement whenever I go to Fortnum & Mason for a scandal broth (Victorian period English for “tea”) with friends. Unfortunately, afternoon tea or, god forbid, “high tea”, seems to trigger fanciful images of finely dressed Duchesses tittering throughout a convoluted ballet of grandiloquent bullshit designed specifically to intimidate the lower classes. Never fear, a little etymology and sympathy will help you realise that most of the etiquette involved is balderdash and certainly should never get in the way of an enjoyable afternoon with friends. 

To start make a friendly, but time-honoured, invitation to your friends. Always invite someone to “drink tea”, never to “take tea”, but both are unfortunately drab. I recommend this Georgian period invitation:

“Will you lap your congo with me?”

Congo being a famed country for its tea production at the time and lap meaning to transport liquid into the mouth via the outstretched tongue, your guests will be delighted to “drink tea” with you. 

After arriving at your favoured salon de thé you could of course calm the nerves by slushing some prattle broth (see “scandal broth”) into your bone box (an 18th century Freemasons’ word for “mouth”). Never add cream as this will dull the taste of the tea. Always use milk. However, French cream (a.k.a. brandy) is acceptable to be added when the companions in your party are distracted and you find their banter is want for spice. 

Furthermore, never raise the pinky or ring finger. Unfortunately, translation tests of the time seem to have been somewhat forgiving, what with the plague and all. In ancient Rome eating with three fingers was to prove one’s “flash fawney” (money) and was mistakenly rolled over by the great unwashed into pinky raising. Raising your pinky while drinking will garner as much respect as Venus thigh trapping your cup and drinking it through a straw. At the risk of sounding concise, it’s better if you just drink the f***er.

 Then just gorge your way from the bottom tier to the top and use your tea spoon as a ninja would his sword, with silent precision. Speaking of ninja, take a leaf out of Japanese tea lore 袖引き煙草に押し付け茶 (which means something like “you wouldn’t yank a smoker’s sleeve so don’t be a pushy bint by forcing tea on someone”). 

Finally, don’t invite finicky etiquettesses or etiquetters. Listen for alarm bells. The Haughty will probably call it “high tea” instead of “afternoon tea”. High tea couldn’t be more different from afternoon tea. High tea is the sumptuous meal miners or physical workers would eat to make up for the lunch they probably missed while slaving. It was eaten at “high afternoon” and in a “high backed” chair, thus the name “high tea”. This is the reason some Commonwealth countries still call dinner time “tea time”. Check the Hong Kong Peninsula’s, the Singapore Ritz’s, or the London Fortnum & Mason’s official website and you will find no mention of high tea, only afternoon tea. So you see, it’s not so “high” after-all. It’s just a pleasant afternoon tea in some fancy low backed chair. 

Avoid wankers, read dictionaries, dress semi-spiffy, and follow basic human consideration for others. Finally, enjoy your brew because it’s far too expensive if you don’t. 

By Blair


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