A Right Royal Cup of Tay

by Dymphna Lonergan

This month, of course, there is great focus on English culture, and no doubt there was a lot of tea drunk in London during the new King’s coronation.

In Ireland, you might hear the drink pronounced ‘tay’, usually in jest, but this is indeed the pronunciation of the beverage in the Irish language – cupán tae. Here we have two English loan words, ‘çup’ with the diminutive ending án and ‘tea’ that has apparently undergone a transformation in spelling and rendered as tae.

There are other English words that when used in Irish English undergo this transformation – you might hear bate for ‘beat’, ate for ‘eat’, and clane for ‘clean’. Unlike the Irish word tae that we can see connected with the pronunciation ‘tay’, these Irish English words, bate, ate, and clane do not follow the same pattern. The reason is very interesting.

Irish English ‘tay’ for tea is seventeenth century English pronunciation, and bate, ate, and clane are from the same time period. When the beverage was introduced to Ireland, it was pronounced and sometimes spelt as ‘tay’. Irish speakers took it ito the language and gave it the Irish spelling of tae.

One of the earliest recording of the beverage in the Oxford English Dictionary reads:

1655   tr. A. Semedo Hist. China i. iii. 19   Chá is a leafe of a tree, about the bignesse of Mirtle; [margin] its called also Tay.

My Tinteán colleague Frank O’Shea from Kerry adds: I have a different explanation for tay, probably a rural Kerry one. I think words with slender vowels were regarded as unmanly. So tea became tay, beat became bate, hunting for the wren became hunting for the wran, glen was glin, mean was mane, sent was sint, creamery was craymery and so on.

I have heard of such a gendered approach to language before. Perhaps it was a Kerry woman, but apparently in a discussion of whether to use the Roman script instead of the Gaelic script for school books, a woman said ‘No’, explaining that Irish printed in an English script was like an man and a woman quarreling. They just don’t get on. She wasn’t listened too, and 1960s saw the end of school books being printed in Gaelic Script, and the h replacing the buailte/séimhiú.

Of interest too, here, is the word Chá. This was my own father’s word for ‘tea’ – a cup of chah. The OED tells us it is Mandarin Chinese for the name of the tea leaf and ‘was occasionally used in English at the introduction of the beverage’, but is now considered slang. Another reference used often by my Dublin-born father was marbh le tae agus marbh gan é ‘dead with tea and dead without tea’. We don’t usually associate tea drinking with fatality, so it is quite possible that the use of ‘dead’ here is reflecting the more varied use of the word marbh in Irish. Ir. marbh can mean ‘dead’, ‘exhausted’, and even ‘ídle’.

A Taste of Home


Tea drinking may be associated with English culture, but it is still very much part of Irish culture too. I remember Lyons tea growing up in Ireland, and on one trip home discovered Barry’s tea that was added to my bring-back stash of Kimberly and Mikado biscuits. Irish tea and biscuits was essential to go with reading those blue flimsy airmail letters from home with precious news written on every available space.

While Irish emigrants to the US might have quickly embraced coffee, tea drinking in Australia was prevalent in Irish settlements such as Kapunda where Flinders University archaeologist Dr Susan Arthure has been excavating crockery shards from the nineteenth century. We will return to this topic next month.

Dymphna is a member of the Tinteán collective