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TWTS: A spot of tea with a side of paper

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What do serious beer, coffee and tea drinkers have in common? Opinions. Very strong opinions on things like craft beer vs. domestic or single origin coffee vs. blend.

When it comes to tea, there’s the question of bagged vs. loose leaf. That’s what listener and presumed tea drinker Sarah McNitt wrote to us about recently, though without extolling the values of one over the other:

“I was thinking about unbagged or "loose leaf" tea and then looked it up…. All of the top results were about notebook paper. Was this term applied to paper or tea first?”

Sarah is right. Many contemporary dictionaries will only give the paper meaning of “loose leaf” without any mention of tea.

Originally, the Oxford English Dictionary only had the paper meaning, which it dated back to 1902 with “loose leaf ledger.” In 2016, the editors of the OED revised the entry to include tea. It dates “loose leaf tea” back to 1892, but that’s not the earliest use of “loose leaf.”

The OED dates “loose leaf tobacco” back to 1831. It referred to tobacco leaves that were sold loose rather than by the barrel. Today it generally refers to tobacco sold in a pouch or tin that can smoked, chewed, etc.

On its own, “leaf” can actually refer to a lot of different things. It’s an Old English word that starts off referring to plants. However, very early on it comes to be used in a metaphorical sense to refer to things that look like leaves such as sheets of paper.

“Leaf” is an Old English word that starts off referring to plants. However, as early as Old English, you can find it used in a metaphorical sense to refer to things that look like leaves, such as sheets of paper.

“Loose leaf” isn’t the only thing we talked about this week on That’s What They Say. To hear our discussion of “naught” vs. “nought” listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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