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I've come across the phrase "take tea" in some sentences, and reckoned it is used as an idiom and not meant literally.

For instance, "Children to compete for chance to take tea with the Mad Hatter."

That sounds like an interesting pun.

What does it mean, and what are its origins?

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6 Answers 6

It's usually meant literally, but "tea" doesn't just refer to the drink, but refers to the meal known as tea. There are quote a few different types of meal called tea, depending on which country or which part of the UK you come from.

For example, there's "low tea", or "afternoon tea", usually a light snack such as sandwiches or eaten between 2pm and 5pm. Nowadays, this can also be a treat in a cafe or hotel with cakes, pastries, or scones and jam and cream. (See this book and this book.)

There's also "high tea", an early evening meal, eaten between 5pm and 7pm. This would be followed by a larger meal later on. Low and high refer to the height of the table where tea was eaten.

Tea can also refer to the main evening meal in the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"Taking tea" is a common phrase for having this meal or snack or just sitting down to brew up, pour and drink tea; it is somewhat of a ceremony. For what it's worth, here's an Ngrams chart (and there's not much difference in shape between UK and US English):

Ngrams chart showing take tea vs have tea

"Children to compete for chance to take tea with the Mad Hatter."

This clearly refers to the Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland where in chapter 7 the Mad Hatter is having a tea party. It's always six o'clock, and they're always drinking tea. There's bread and butter laid out as well:

'Take some more tea,' the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

'I've had nothing yet,' Alice replied in an offended tone, 'so I can't take more.'

'You mean you can't take less,' said the Hatter: 'it's very easy to take more than nothing.'

'Nobody asked your opinion,' said Alice.

'Who's making personal remarks now?' the Hatter asked triumphantly.

Alice did not quite know what to say to this: so she helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter, and then turned to the Dormouse, and repeated her question. 'Why did they live at the bottom of a well?'

Mad Hatters tea party

But as to the original question, the winning children would join the Hatter's tea party. There might be actual drinks and snacks for the children, or it could be meant that the winners would get to spend time with the Hatter.

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It's not used much in the United States, possibly because we Americans (in general) aren't as big on tea as the British. I believe it means the same as "have tea" or "drink tea." Sometimes though, the word tea is used to mean something like a snack time. It's usually around 1600 hours and doesn't necessarily involve drinking tea. So to "take tea" with someone could just mean taking a break together sometime before dinner (supper).

Sorry I don't have any sources, I'm just going off what I've picked up over the years.

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One can "take" anything that can be consumed - one may take drugs, take a little wine, even take breakfast. In that sense "take tea" is simply an ordinary phrase.

However, "take" in the sense of consume is nowadays only idiomatic in relation to certain objects, and apart from drugs and medicines (generally, and specifically, whether recreational or medicinal, and excluding drugs like alcohol or tobacco which have a more specific action associated with them), it is not the preferred verb. One usually "has" or "drinks" tea (depending on whether it is the beverage or the meal), "drinks wine", and "eats breakfast".

So, there's absolutely no pun in your example, and it is indeed to be understood literally.

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Take means also "consume as food, drink, medicine, or drugs." This meaning is reported also from the NOAD, and it is not marked as "chiefly British."

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'take tea', take breakfast', 'take' a meal is not use at all in AmE, and sounds strange (it evokes the question "take it to where?"). In AmE one would only ever say 'have breakfast' ('tea' is not at all a mea/event to those speakers.) also one would not 'take your steak and potatoes', but would 'take your cough syrup'. –  Mitch Feb 1 '12 at 13:36
    
@k Indeed: There is an advertising slogan for Courage Breweries, "Take Courage", which plays on the meaning. –  Andrew Leach May 14 at 7:39
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In my experience, "to take tea" with someone can also be used metaphorically. It means "to have a casual meeting" with them, a social get-together or face-to-face that is shorter than a party and more casual than a meeting, but definitely more than just stopping for a chat in the street.

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You're right that people use it this way, but I wouldn't call it a metaphor. It is just that the habits of having a tea have changed a little, up to the fact that no tea might be involved anymore. I would expect that people still would sit, have something drink, and maybe something to eat. In other countries, you might be invited for a cup of coffee instead, while it might be that in fact you'll have a tea together. –  Zane May 18 at 14:19
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Also notable that in Languages that have much in common with English, French and Spanish for example both use the form "take" when referring to drinking a beverage. Prendre and tomar for French and Spanish respectively are the verbs that are used for having a drink, (Je vais prendre un thé and Voy a tomar un té) and translate directly to "take" in English.

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