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.

  • 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, 2011 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. Mar 27, 2011 at 21:56
  • cha means tea in portuguese. never heard any britain, australian or american saying that in english though.
    – user8166
    May 4, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2012 at 16:49

9 Answers 9


"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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    This is all true, though I don't think it's hugely rare, just antiquated. A more well-known use of the phrase "A cup of char" is by the very working class secretary, Mildred Murfin in the BBC Radio series The Men From The Ministry (1962 - 1977) who said it a number of times when bringing out their tea break, or elevenses, or half-past-elevenses ...
    – MrLore
    Apr 4, 2017 at 18:09

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.
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.

  • 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).
    – apaderno
    Mar 27, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 at 21:26
  • It actually originally comes from Persian, not from 'Indian languages'. A LOT of Punjabi/Hindi words are from Persian Feb 7, 2013 at 19:36

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.

  • 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, 2011 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. May 5, 2011 at 6:37

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.

  • 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, 2011 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, 2011 at 12:38

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.
    – user10893
    Jul 17, 2011 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.) Mar 8, 2012 at 22:39
  • AFAIK in Cantonese 茶 is pronounced "caa4" Feb 9, 2013 at 2:06

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.


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.


My father, who served in the RAF in India and Burma during WW2, would often refer to "a cup of cha", (cup of tea) during my growing up in the 1950s. He used to talk about the cha wallahs who brought them cuppas when they woke up and throughout the day - "Wakey, wakey - tea and cakey" they apparently used to cry. He would also talk about the dhobi wallahs who took care of their laundry.

Many other people also referred to "cha", in Britain, at that time. It went out of fashion, I believe, from about 1960.


According to Paul Irving

Although it's rare now, 'char' used to be in common use in England, at least among the working class. It was brought back by soldiers who'd served in India. I remember it from my childhood.

Definition of “char” | Collins English Dictionary:

4 char (tʃɑː ) noun

(British) a slang word for tea

Word Origin from Chinese ch'a

Read more: Where does the expression 'a cup of char' (tea) come from?

  • I'll have a "cuppa" is an alternative to "a cup of char" as a truncated form of the British colloquial English for a cup of tea or for imbibing tea itself. Curiously I don't think the Brits would ever use these colloquialisms when ordering or referring to Chinese tea. A cuppa denotes drinking Indian or Ceylon tea in the UK. Aug 30, 2016 at 6:15

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