I am an English teacher. While teaching my students l am often asked about English idioms and their etymologies and meanings. As a rule, I can find the answers to their questions. But there's an idiom which meaning, but not the etymology, l know: 'Husband's tea'. It means 'very weak tea'. At my English classes I often ask the students about their associations with this idiom. Nearly always they say, 'it's a hot, strong tea'. Does anybody know the etymology of this idiom? I would really appreciate your help.

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    I’ve not heard this particular idiom before, and internet searches (for me!) aren’t giving me much to go on. Do you have an example of its use? What region are you in? I guess it might be regional. – Pam Dec 7 at 8:31
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    Never heard it before, here in the US. I suspect it's regional/social class related. – Hot Licks Dec 7 at 13:05
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    Clue: My father would take the used teabag from my mother's tea and steep another cup of tea from it. This would take about half an hour. When camping, his "tea" consisted of powdered milk and brown sugar. And I've got lots of observations of mostly the females caring about the tea directly. – Joshua Dec 7 at 16:17
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    @Joshua That sounds absolutely disgusting – Azor Ahai Dec 7 at 17:18
  • @AzorAhai: I tried it. It's not disgusting. Ovaltine was more to my taste though. – Joshua Dec 7 at 17:30

The OED entry is instructive. Whilst it confirms the expression is obsolete (though I vaguely remember having heard it in my lifetime), I think the example given from 1877 comes as close as anything to explaining the etymology. The suggestion is that if a pot of tea turns out too weak, wives consider it fit only for their husband, not for it to be drunk by themselves.

husband's tea n. (also husbands' tea) Brit. colloq. Obsolete very weak tea. 1874 Hotten's Slang Dict. (rev. ed.) at Water-bewitched Sometimes very weak tea is called ‘husband's tea’. 1877 Rep. & Trans. Devonshire Assoc. Advancem. Sci., Lit. & Art 9 132 A servant girl..calls Weak tea Husband's tea, and explains that whilst wives think such tea good enough for their husbands, they do not take it themselves. 1895 Hampshire Tea 17 Aug. 6/4 Piled-up platefuls of cake and bread and butter and steaming cans of tea—not ‘husbands' tea’—were put on the tables.

  • Thank you very much for your full and interesting answer. – user307254 Dec 7 at 9:23
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    As a Brit, I would agree that this is obsolete as I have never heard the phrase before, despite being a husband and a drinker of very weak tea. The closest similar idiom I've come across is "builders' tea", which means very strong tea, usually with excessive amounts of sugar as well. (given these opposite phrases, one wonders what kind of tea a married builder would drink...?) – Spudley Dec 7 at 14:29
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    @Spudley - I think they'd just call that "warm water". :P – BruceWayne Dec 7 at 17:25
  • @Spudley: Builder's tea would be the morning drink and husband's tea would be the evening drink. The caffeine requirement controls. – Joshua Dec 7 at 17:33
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    Note that it would also be only a British usage, since relatively few Americans regularly drink tea, or care that much about it if they do. – jamesqf Dec 7 at 18:05

According to Green's Dictionary of Slang it's a slang expression that probably compares a husband to a lover. The expression apparently was mentioned on a late 19th century edition of Hotten’s Slang Dictionary but its usage may well date earlier.

Husband’s tea (n.) [? a husband’s inadequacy as opposed to that of a lover] very weak tea.

  • 1873 [UK] Sl. Dict.
  • 1889–90 [UK] Barrère & Leland Dict. of Sl., Jargon and Cant.
  • 1890–1904 [UK] Farmer & Henley Sl. and Its Analogues.

Also The following source refers to husband’s tea as weak tea, but doesn’t give details on its specific origin:

The earliest usage of "weak tea" as a pejorative beverage is 1825, in Robert Forby's Vocabulary of East Anglia, in reference to the word "lap," as in: to lap up your soup. Here, though, it's as a noun: lap being a diluted sustenance such as "thin broth or porridge; weak tea, &c." The same book applies the phrase to another, wilder one: "water bewitched," a colloquialism "used derisively for excessively diluted liquor; now chiefly, very weak tea." Years later, in an 1874 slang dictionary, "water bewitched" also had this note: "Sometimes very weak tea is called ‘husband's tea.’"

(Teasquared.com)

The following extract from The Earthen Vessel and Christian Record & Review dated 1850 appears to use husband’s tea with the above connotation:

Mr. W. shewed it was done living principally upon potatoes and bread, and a little “husband's tea;" and that he was never stronger or better in his life than at that time.

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