I recently got in a discussion with a colleague, about herbal tea not being a correct term, as it contains no tea. Instead, one ought to use the term herbal infusions.

Tea (dried leaves from the tea plant aka Camellia sinensis) was gradually introduced in Europe during the 16th/17th century, but the making of herbal teas — all right, herbal infusions — was already widespread at the time.

So, my question: How did they call these herbal infusions? The term infusion sounds very scientific to me, so was there another way these were referred to?

  • 4
    I know that e.g. in Spanish the term infusion is everyday usage and far from "very scientific". – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 30 '16 at 14:17
  • 3
    another english word for same is "tisane". – Aaron Brick May 1 '16 at 4:33
  • 1
    Incidentally, a lot of modern herbal teas do actually contain some amount of tea. – TRiG May 2 '16 at 15:00
  • 1
    It seems to have very quickly been applied to infusion of non-tea plants (New Jersey Tea etc). One wonders how many hundreds of years is needed until your friend accepts a minor broadening of word usage. – Yorik May 3 '16 at 19:51


an infusion (as of dried herbs) used as a beverage or for medicinal effects

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin ptisana, from Greek ptisanē, literally, crushed barley, from ptissein to crush — more at pestle First Known Use: 14th century


edit: Tim Romano's answer below is superior to mine.

  • 10
    Interesting! For some reason, I always associated the first part of tisane with "tea," but it looks like they have entirely different origins. – sumelic Apr 29 '16 at 19:49
  • 10
    Also worth noting that a tisane made from a single herb intended to be medicinal may also be known as a simple. – Aesin Apr 29 '16 at 20:09
  • 4
    quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/… – TRomano Apr 29 '16 at 21:46
  • 5
    Hercule Poirot approves – Pharap May 1 '16 at 3:57
  • 2
    And of course, before the introduction of hops into the brewing process in the 15th century, an "iced tisane" was more commonly known as any of beer, lager, ale, or pilsner, depending on country of residence. ;-) – Pieter Geerkens May 2 '16 at 4:37

So, my question: How did they call these herbal infusions?

During the Middle English period, the concoction made from the herb was itself referred to as an herb. They would say "Drink this herb".

They didn't bother to say "infusion of this herb".

Drinke þis herbe..and it [wol] make al þe body in-to a swat.

A Middle English Translation of Macer Floridus de Viribus Herbarum, ed. G. Frisk

  • 10
    Not a problem, and you're welcome. But take note that during the Middle English period, tisane was, per the MED, "a medicinal drink made from shelled barley and water", not a general term for "infusion". Of bareliche yscheled and ysoden in water is medicynable drynk ymade þat phisicians clepiþ thisane. A medicinal drink that physicians call thisane is made of shelled barley soaked in water. – TRomano Apr 30 '16 at 11:14
  • 5
    First time I've actually seen the letter thorn put to use. Or should that be þorn? – Pharap May 1 '16 at 3:59
  • 2
    Can you give more reference besides this one quotation? This seems very appealing and plausible, but none of the dictionaries I’ve checked (including the OED and MED) mention this usage of herb — i.e. they list various senses, including “a medicinal plant…” or similar, but they do not list anything like “…an infusion prepared from such plants”. – PLL May 1 '16 at 14:50
  • 5
    @Pharap - Oh, you've seen it all the time, it just gets bastardized into a 'y' most of the time. E.g. "Ye Olde Taverne" or whatnot (should be "Þe Olde Taverne", or as we would read it "The Olde Taverne"), because the old English script for a 'þ' looks a lot like a backwards 'y'. – Darrel Hoffman May 1 '16 at 16:03
  • 7
    @Pharap: not surprising you’re seeing it online — you know, the internet is for þorn. – PLL May 2 '16 at 2:37

When you boil down the question, the appropriate answer hinges on what would have been meant by "herbal tea" prior to the introduction of the word 'tea' in the sense of

2. a. A drink made by infusing these [Thea (now often included in Camellia)] leaves in hot water, having a somewhat bitter and aromatic flavour, and acting as a moderate stimulant; largely used as a beverage.

["tea, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198340?rskey=tnWhke&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed April 30, 2016).]

The word in forms resembling modern 'tea', and used in sense 2.a, that is, the drink as opposed to the plant, is not attested in OED Online until the mid-1600s (1658, 'Tcha', 'Tay', 'Tee'), earlier attested forms in English being 'Chia' and 'cha'.

If a meaning approximating what is encompassed by 'herbal infusion', that is, a specific process-oriented meaning, is intended, 'infusion' is not attested in that sense until, at the earliest, the mid-1500s (?1550). Note that uses of 'infusion' with that meaning refer to medicinal preparations made by steeping as opposed to boiling.

4. b. A dilute liquid extract obtained from a substance by soaking it with, or steeping it in, water; also any water containing dissolved organic (esp. vegetable) matter, such as that in which Infusoria are found.

["infusion, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/95690 (accessed April 30, 2016).]

Another specific process-oriented word might be 'decoction'. It is attested in 1398 in this sense:

4. A liquor in which a substance, usually animal or vegetable, has been boiled, and in which the principles thus extracted are dissolved; spec. as a medicinal agent.

["decoction, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48312 (accessed April 30, 2016).]

As with 'infusion', 'decoction' was used with reference to specifically medicinal prepartions. As opposed to the steeping denoted by 'infusion', 'decoction' denotes boiling to obtain the preparation.

My nomination for the appropriate word to answer your particular question departs from process-oriented meanings in favor of a purpose-oriented meaning. The word was in use much earlier, but the evidence, its attestation from c1220-c1440, suggests it was perhaps obsoleted by the process-oriented words 'infusion' and 'decoction' in literate if not in common use prior to the introduction of 'tea':

halewei | halewey, n.
A healing water, used both as a drink, and as a lotion for wounds; balm, antidote.

["† halewei | halewey, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/83398 (accessed April 30, 2016).]

Other authorities tend to cast 'halewey' as a particular kind of tea, rather than a generic term (healing water), although they differ on its composition:


(From Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, Erin McKean, Oxford University Press, Oct 23, 2006).


(From Selections from Early Middle English, Joseph Hall, Clarendon Press, 1920.)

Another good candidate than 'halewey', attested from before 1200 with documentary evidence dated around 1225 (dates uncertain), has a generic process-oriented meaning alternative to the purpose-oriented meaning of 'halewey':

sabras, n.
A decoction or infusion.
?c1225 (▸?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 268 Þe an for geað alþet he luued. of metes & of drunches. & drinkeð bittere sabraz forto acouren heale.

["† sabras, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/169377 (accessed May 01, 2016).]

As little is known about the composition of 'sabras' (variant 'sabrace') as about the composition of 'halewey', but it has been suggested that the word derives from an Arabic word for 'a drink':

In the Ancren Riwle, edited for the Camden Society by the Rev. J. Morton, p. 364, it is said that a sick man who is wise uses abstinence, and drinks bitter sabras to recover his health: in the Latin MS. Oxon. potat amara. It may be from the Arabic, "Shabra, a drink." See Notes and Queries, vol. ii. pp. 70, 204.

(From Promptorium Parvulorum Sive Clericorum: Dictionarius Anglo-Latinum Princeps, Volume 89, Sumptibus Societatis Camdenensis. This is an 1865 edition of the Promptorium Parvulorum, itself dated around 1440, edited and annotated by Albertus Way.)


My wife did a tour at Celestial Seasonings. According to the tour guide, herbal infusions is what they originally called their products, but they didn't sell very well until they changed the name to herbal tea.

  • 11
    Unless that company is several hundred years old (which they aren't), this anecdote does not answer the question. – pipe Apr 30 '16 at 2:15
  • 2
    Perhaps not the company itself, but I imagine they didn't invent the practice, or the terminology. – Wyrmwood Apr 30 '16 at 2:51

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.