British and American English: Talking about tea

Tea isn’t just a drink here, it’s a meal and a marker of class. (You’ll find lots of those if you know how to look.) If you’re working class, tea is the evening meal and dinner is lunch. If you’re upper class, the evening meal is supper. Are you still with me? You won’t be for long, because A. adds, “But we all say supper now.”

Who’s “we”?

Sorry, you’re on your own there.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. He doesn’t care what the meal’s called.

And in case this isn’t confusing enough, I’ve read that all this turns into its opposite in other parts of the country, so you have to know where someone’s from to know what they’re eating. Or drinking. Or talking about.

Wild thing was on the phone with H. and invited her to stop by for tea after something they were doing together. H. told us later that she hung up the phone and thought, I wonder what I just got invited for? Because Wild Thing and I don’t play by the same rules as anyone else does, so who knows what we mean when we say “tea”?

We sure as hell don’t.

Everyone seems to agree that afternoon tea (as opposed to just plain old tea) is afternoon tea—you know: a cup of tea and a little something—but if you want that little something in the morning it’s either morning coffee or elevensies. Morning tea? Sorry, there is no such thing. It’s morning coffee. And if you don’t drink coffee? No problem. You can get tea. But it’s still not called tea.

69 thoughts on “British and American English: Talking about tea

  1. I think that, to be taken seriously, afternoon tea must always involve scones (the kind that rhymes with mons, not the nasty, brutish and short monstrosities purveyed on this side of the pond), served hot with butter, jam or honey and cream. Cucumber sandwiches make it classy. And there should be a giant fruit cake in the middle of the table.

    I know this because I grew up in a house with an abundant supply of very English books. My personal experience of afternoon tea usually included koeksusters and melktert, and we did without the fruit cake unless it was Christmas time.

    Oh, and the milk goes in FIRST.

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  2. The worst very worst: going into a pub for a late “lunch”…asking for coffee and being told by wait staff that since it is past noon….it isn’t being served because morning coffee is just that…
    M-0-R-N-I-N-G coffee! “Tea it ’tis please, Poppet…yes, yes, yes, and thank you so very much.”
    True story.

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  3. The beauty of the English language is that it means something everywhere but just not what you thought. And the French object to English being the ‘International Language’ or ‘Lingua Franca’ (that’s an English expression, honest). They should think themselves lucky!

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  4. I am still unsure about this, but it doesn’t help that I am not married to a British! Many years ago I was invited for… not sure what they called it, actually, but after work I assumed it meant dinner. I was starving, and all they had on the table was crackers and cheese. I assumed that was the starter… So left their house hungry as hell!! So what was that, a supper, tea?? When do these people eat, can yoh survive or crackers and cheese after a long day at work…??

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      • Born here, always lived here, so I will suggest an answer. If they ate their biggest meal at lunchtime (Lunch in the South, Dinner up North) then a selection of cheeses and crackers (a Light Supper) would be appropriate, hopefully offered with wine.
        Afternoon tea is always a meal of some sort, usually served between 3-5 pm. There might be sandwiches, and cakes too, or either. It comes from the time when dinner was eaten much later, as everyone worked longer hours. These days, it is best enjoyed at The Ritz in London, or somewhere deliberately quaint, like a branch of Betty’s in Yorkshire.
        If you only have a light lunch (or nothing at all, as many do) then the main meal, usually eaten after 6pm, and before 8pm, is definitely ‘Dinner.’
        I take it that’s all clear now?
        Best wishes, Pete.

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    • Why not? It makes as much sense as anything else, and it reminds me that when I lived in the US I often talked about meeting someone for coffee–years after I’d stopped drinking the stuff.

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  5. There is actually nothing difficult about it at all. To know which meal is called what, simply go to any school and ask what the female assistants who help giving out the midday repast are called.
    Here endeth the lesson.

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  6. Pingback: British Tea – a Foregner’s Experience | Not Another Tall Blog

  7. I know, right? It is so confusing! I just call it “a CUP of tea” when I mean morning tea… I use supper and dinner interchangeably to mean the evening meal, and I get really annoyed when people call lunch “dinner” lol. And I also get annoyed when people call the evening meal “tea.” For me, tea either means the drink or the late afternoon snack XD

    Obviously, I’m the one who’s right and everyone else it getting it wrong!! ;-)

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      • I don’t even know how the American terminology is used! I didn’t know it was any different there. LOL that is so funny what you said about the British all sitting down in one room to decide what to call different meals!! LMAO :) I can imagine a whole Monty Python sketch like that, good idea.

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        • The Americans will need a bigger room, because we haven’t entirely agreed either. Where I grew up (New York City), supper was the evening meal, and dinner was a fancy, pretentious version of the evening meal. Where my partner grew up (Texas, Okalhoma), in the country, dinner was the midday meal. But it’s going to have to be a very, very big room, and since we’re still recovering from our Civil War (what was that? some 150 years ago?) I don’t think we’re going to have an easy time sorting out something this important.

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          • Okay, I get what you mean now! It’s all very confusing. LOL, you’re right, something so important like this is going to be hard to sort out, but we need to address this issue urgently. The government, unfortunately, is turning a blind eye. I think we’re going to have to collect signatures for a petition to sort out the dinner/lunch/supper/tea terminology issue. And if worst comes to worst we’ll have to start with the protests outside parliament and some srong propaganda. It will be the movement of our century :)

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            • You’re right, but I think we should skip over the petitions and head straight to the demonstrations. They should start about teatime, and they’ll fragment instantly when we try to figure out what time that is.

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  8. Now look I’m not a country bumpkin, I love the tea thing and have done here in the states, I suppose it’s different where you are but it’s still tea to me,and those tea finger sandwiches are from out of this world
    Thank you for your like, come and visit, you are always welcome,I put the kettle you bring the squares
    Sheldon

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  9. On Sunday afternoon (15 February) I had breakfast followed, in the afternoon by Sunday lunch (roast beef with all the trimmings). I then, at 3:30 had a cup of tea and a jaffa cake with a neighbour. Does this count as afternoon tea I wonder?! In the evening I had a prawn salad, was that my tea I wonder? To confuse matters further I bumped into another neighbour who invited me in for tea which consisted of 2 cups and a biscuit! As a child I went to a boarding school where we ate 3 meals a day and, in one school we also had supper which consisted of a drink and a biscuit. All as clear as mud! Kevin

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  10. I absolutely love this! As A Brit living in Switzerland I often find myself having to justify my tea-loving ways to others. If it helps the drink ‘tea’ is any kind of black tea, if I ask for tea unless I specify herbal/green/mint/whatever tea I want black tea. ‘Afternoon tea’ should at the very least have biscuits or cake going on but ideally should involve scones with cream and jam. Someone tried to ask me if you would have nutella with scones. The answer is no. There isn’t such a thing as ‘morning tea’ but you can have tea in the morning, it’s just if it isn’t accompanied with sugary treats its just tea whatever time of the day. The ‘tea’ for food option is definitely confusing because as you point out there are massive regional variations on this. I am from the south east and if you were invited by a friend for tea after school, you would eat, but as a grown up it becomes dinner. Maybe it’s difference between eating at 5/6 (tea) and 8 (dinner)? I’m sorry for the essay in your comment section, I’m a bit of a tea nut and may have got carried away!

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  11. This has been a vocabulary issue for me since I met my husband 22 years ago because I grew up calling the evening meal “tea” whereas he called it “dinner”. That caused confusion because for me “dinner” was what he called “lunch”.

    Afternoon tea is a fantastic tradition, isn’t it?

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    • Afternoon tea is an inspired tradition, and other than breakfast the only meal (if it is a meal–there; I’ve gone and added more confusion) that can’t be misunderstood. I used to think the “afternoon” part of afternoon tea was there for decoration. Little did I know, it’s there for clarity.

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