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Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Don't "Chai" and "Tea" Both Mean the Same Thing?

Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Tony Webster / Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Next time you order a chai tea from your corner coffee shop, take a moment and appreciate your killer multi-lingual skills. After all, etymologically speaking, the words “chai” and “tea” refer to exactly the same thing, just in different languages. So what’s the deal?

Almost 5,000 years ago, when folks in China started sipping a yummy, steeped beverage made from dried leaves and buds, different regions had different names for it. Most Chinese languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, referred to the stuff by a word that is pronounced like “chá.” But other dialects, including Min Nan Chinese, which was spoken around Fujian, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, referred to it by a word that sounds more like "te."

Take It To Go

Flash forward about four and a half thousand years, and you have the exportation of tea via land and sea routes to the West. Portuguese traders, who are credited with first bringing the herbal drink to Europe in the late sixteenth century, followed a trade route through Macao, and thus used a derivation on the Cantonese: cha, shai, choy. It was the same story with overland routes to Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Russia, hence the use of “chai” in those languages, too.

Alternatively, Dutch traders, who had a corner on the tea market in Western Europe—including Spain, France, Germany and Italy—got most of their goods from the Fujian region, and therefore referred to it by derivations on its Min Nan Chinese name: té, tèh, tey. Also, because that was an era of colonial powers, many of those European countries exported the word “te” to their colonial regions, which is why languages like Javanese say “tèh,” too.

That is, of course, an oversimplification of how the word has evolved in every language. A lot of languages, particularly in places where the tea plant grew naturally, have their own name for tea, too. Other languages use the word “tea” or “chai” to refer to lots of different kinds of drinks.

And then—just to further complicate things—there are the modern American marketing geniuses, who want to make us think that “chai” means “milky and spicy tea,” “tea” means the herbal stuff we can see through, and “Tazo” means something else entirely.

“Tazo,” for the record, seems to be just a clever brand name referring to specific blends of tea. While there’s a whole mythology of the word printed on the side of tea boxes, I haven’t been able to find any historically verifiable etymology of that word. Either way—chai, tea or Tazo—sign me up for a large.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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