stewed tea

Perusing early uses of “stew”, I noticed that “stewed tea” warranted its own OED notes. It made perfect sense: it’s the only case in which “stewed” reliably means “overcooked”, unless, of course, you prefer your dried fruits unrehydrated in any way or know someone inevitably prone to overcooking all foods.

The earliest use of “stewed tea” the dictionary has is from 1908. The phrase appears in Arnold Bennett’s novel, Old Wives’ Tale. Two new guests arrive at a hotel, avidly watched by the assembled guests, gathered for afternoon tea: “They vanished quietly upstairs in convoy of the manager’s wife, and they did not re-appear for the lounge tea, which in any case would have been undrinkably stewed.”

Rudyard Kipling uses the phrase twice in his 1926 collection of short stories, Debits and Credits, in “The Wish House” and “A Friend of the Family”. (The stories were written between 1923 and 1925.) In both cases, it is part of a larger repast, whether “buttered toast, currant bread, stewed tea, bitter as leather, some home-preserved pears, and a cold boiled pig’s tail to help down the muffins” in the first case, or “stewed tea with your meat four times a day”, as in the second.

A few intriguing snippets from Google Books pushes the earliest date of its use further back, if those dates of publication are correct. In 1905, a local education authority in Great Britain advised that “If you take this stewed tea it will prevent you from getting the proper goodness out of your food.” It continues on to recommend that tea being drunk promptly after brewing. In 1904, Vol. 8 of The Queen Cookery Books uses it, although the available excerpt is not enough to provide anything more than a description of what stewed tea is.

In any event, “stewed tea”, as a phrase, first shows up in print at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving me wondering about the earlier history of words used to describe over-steeped tea. Quickly checking Google Books again: “Over brewed tea” goes back at least to 1884. “Over steeped tea”, a rarer phrase, at least to 1915. And before 1884?


Hot caffeinated beverages, more than any other kind of food in fantasy worlds, come with made-up names. Kavage, from Elizabeth Vaughan‘s Dagger-Star (and her other work, apparently), is one of them. It’s the only word for a food or drink which doesn’t exist in our world, in a novel containing, among other foods, raisins, turnips, and saffron.

It’s made by boiling water in a small copper pot, and then putting beans into it. (Are they ground? It’s not mentioned.) Despite this, at one point in the novel (p. 180), in what is possibly an error in the text, a pot of tea arrives. Immediately afterward, everyone is drinking kavage from cups. Whatever it is, it can be over-brewed, and is a dark and bitter. (p. 107) It’s drunk in a mug, and frequently had in the morning.

As a caffeinated beverage word, kavage struck me as one of the least intuitive I’ve encountered, because the letters made me think of so many other things instead. (The tea/coffee confusion in the text didn’t help either.) I kept thinking it might be cognate with “cabbage”, or perhaps a relative of the Vanuatan pepper-family drink “kava”, or perhaps related to the French “cavage” (excavation, hollow). But it’s not. It’s one of the many names for caffeine in one the many worlds of fantasy.

*© S. Worthen 2009