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By happenstance, I stumbled upon the words cha, char and chai in the dictionary today, all defined as meaning tea in informal British English. I lived and worked in London for some time, but never heard it used, so I am wondering: is it specific to certain dialects? Or is it dated? The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't mention anything like that.

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It's a recent addition to common AmE, I'd guess almost entirely through commercial means (Starbuck's, etc), so pretty commonly recognized here. As to BrE, I have no idea. What dictionary did you find the colloquial meaning? (certainly it's well known in the subcontinental immigrant population) –  Mitch Mar 27 '11 at 16:07
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My instinct is that cha/char is predominantly lower class, used both in the East End of London and in the North, but I can't point you at any source to back that up. –  Peter Taylor Mar 27 '11 at 21:56
    
cha means tea in portuguese. never heard any britain, australian or american saying that in english though. –  user8166 May 4 '11 at 21:42
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As an American, "chai" refers to a specific drink, perhaps you'd call it a kind of tea, but it's not widely used (if at all!) to refer to tea in general. –  Charles May 5 '11 at 2:07
    
Chai is what we call tea for sure in Pakistan. Untill now I thought it was an Urdu word but it seems from the above references that it is a native or slang English word for tea. –  user21616 May 27 '12 at 16:49
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7 Answers

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"Char" is an old British English (in fact I would say English English) slang term for "tea". I don't think it is heard particularly often, but you might see or hear the phrase "cup of char and a wad" (meaning "cup of tea and a slice of cake") in a WWII context for example.

I seem to recall that Reggie Perrin used this expression in David Nobbs' novel 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin' back in the 1970s, but even then the café waitress didn't understand it and he had to translate. So I think it is a fairly rare beast, and probably often used (as in Reggie's case) to sound deliberately working class or for humourous effect.

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Chai, or its variants, are terms borrowed from various Asian languages, meaning "tea". Wikipedia, citing the AHD, gives the Mandarin chá (茶) as origin, then transmitted to Persian چای, and subsequently to other languages (e.g.: Hindi: चाय cāy, Urdu: چاۓ , cāy, Marathi: चहा cahā, Gujarati ચા chā, Bengali: চা cha).

The OED says that chai is generally used as shorthand for Masala chai, literally spiced tea, a tea made by brewing tea with a mix of spices in milk. Often you will also hear it called chai tea which, I guess, is a bit redundant... or, especially in the US, chai latte (see definition below), which is, again, redundant.

chai Mil. slang.
(tʃaɪ)
Any of various specific preparations of tea (typically associated with countries or regions where chai is the generic word for tea). Now esp. = masala chai n. at masala n. Compounds.
chai latte n. orig. N. Amer. a hot drink similar to masala chai, made with spiced tea (or a commercially produced concentrate) and steamed milk.

As for the regionality of the term, I can't help. I heard it commonly when I was living in NZ, don't know how widespread is in the UK or USA.

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I found chai tea in an American food store; it was a spiced tea containing particular spices. I don't know if other USA states use the same term, but it was used in the state I visited (New York). –  kiamlaluno Mar 27 '11 at 14:19
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Well, Starbucks sells "Chai latte", and other similar contraptions :) so my assumption would be that it is quite a standard term in the US. –  nico Mar 27 '11 at 14:24
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I think it's a deliberate starbucks ploy to put some mocha/latte upmarket spin on the "cup of tea" –  mgb Mar 27 '11 at 18:59
    
@Martin Beckett: you are most probably right! My point was only to say that chai can be considered a fairly known term. –  nico Mar 27 '11 at 21:26
    
It actually originally comes from Persian, not from 'Indian languages'. A LOT of Punjabi/Hindi words are from Persian –  ZafarS Feb 7 '13 at 19:36
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Indeed, most languages in the world use a variant of cha. This goes back to the continental Chinese word (茶 chá). In the pictogram, you can distinguish the grass radical (艸) on top of the plant itself complete with roots and leaves.

  • The Japanese took the name, the thing and the character from Chinese (when Japanese borrows only the Chinese Hanzi (漢字) character it is pronounced with the original Japanese name different from the Chinese monosyllabic pronunciation).
  • In Russian (Чай) and Romanian (Ceai) it is also pronounced "chaï".
  • In Portuguese it is "chá" as well.
  • Greek (Τσάι - tsai)
  • In Classical Arabic as well.
  • Indian dialects as shown by @nico comply with the universal pronunciation.

In reality very few languages use tea/thé/tè/té (English, French, Italian/ Spanish and maybe a few others).

The most well known area where Chinese tea is grown is Fujian (福建) in front of Taiwan and in the dialects spoken over there (閩語 - Mǐn yǔ or simply Mǐn), in contrast to Cantonese and Mandarin, the character 茶 is pronounced "teey". Hence our tea.

Going back to the dictionary entry, one possibility is that the increasing cosmopolitanism of England and the US are the cause of this new loanword.

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I've been told that "Чай" derives from "China", that is, Chinese tea. I'm not sure why this would be true (if it is) since "China/Chinese" has К, not Ч. –  Charles May 5 '11 at 2:05
    
It's probably wrong because in most languages, China ultimately derives from the Qin dynasty (秦 qín - pronounced "chin") who unified all Warring States. Remember the emperor Shi Huangdi(始皇帝) famous for its Terracotta Army ? With him of the "Qin" dynasty started China as we know it today. –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 5 '11 at 6:37
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It may be useful to examine the derivation of the word tea itself. According to Etymonline.com:

tea 1650s, earlier chaa (1590s, from Port. cha), from Malay teh and directly from Chinese (Amoy dialect) t'e, in Mandarin ch'a. The distribution of the different forms of the word reflects the spread of use of the beverage.

Regarding the "distribution of the different forms" I can add this data point: In Japanese the word for tea is cha (茶), usually rendered politely in conversation as お茶 (o-cha, or "honorable" tea). This was obviously borrowed from the Hanzi.

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Thanks for the information… I don't exactly know how this pertains to current usage in specific dialects. Any input on that? –  F'x Mar 27 '11 at 12:24
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Honestly, I only ever see it on restaurant menus or to refer to specific drinks like masala chai which are obvious imports that have not yet become current in English. Like you, I never heard it used in England or Ireland during the time I spent there. –  Robusto Mar 27 '11 at 12:38
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Char's origin is clearly and definitely the origin place of tea, which is China. In Chinese, the pronunciation of the Chinese character for tea, 茶,is "cha". By the way, in Cantonese dialect, a main dialect of Chinese, 茶 (tea) is pronounced as "te".

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I suggest citing a source that clearly links the two. I don't doubt your conclusion, but it helps to have some type of scholarly reference that supports your point. –  simchona Jul 17 '11 at 20:22
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@simchona, what do you mean by "two" (in "links the two")? (The two Chinese characters shown are the same, with two different pronunciations.) –  jwpat7 Mar 8 '12 at 22:39
    
AFAIK in Cantonese 茶 is pronounced "caa4" –  Alain Pannetier Φ Feb 9 '13 at 2:06
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The NOAD third edition reports that char, cha, and chai are British informal nouns for tea.

The origin of the nouns is late 16th century (as cha; rare before the early 20th century), from Chinese (Mandarin dialect) chá.

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It's now antiquated, except for the use of "chai" of spiced tea.

The use as a general term for tea (all variants mentioned) dates from the time of the Raj, and has declined. Apart from "chai", I have almost never heard the use of "char" for tea.

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