A recent conversation about the word “tisane” led me toward a considerable amount of reading about the word’s origins and meanings and the suitability of the word for contemporary use. My position in the original discussion was that “tisane” was a word that properly identified an infusion of anything other than the leaves of the tea plant, camellia sinensis. My defense and support of the word emerged from the goal of leaving the word “tea” out of any term for something without any tea plants in it. The person on the other side of this discussion held that it was a pretentious word that had only recently come into vogue in the United States among people who want to sound knowledgeable.
My initial investigations led to the conclusion that “tisane” was a French word that meant nothing more than “herbal tea.” As such, it was not any more accurate than “herbal tea” was in English. It does seem likely that “tisane” only came into common use through attempts by people selling and writing about tea to sound more formal or fancy, not because it had a more specific meaning or traditional use among tea experts. The earliest Greek forms of the word “tisane” refer to infusions of barley with herbs, which really gets us no closer to how it should be used now.
After reading more, including, this discussion on the French-English forum of wordreference.com, I have reached the conclusion that “tisane” by itself has very little actual meaning, but it can be of use. Functionally, it appears to translate from the French much more accurately into the English word “infusion” as it is often used with additional details, like tisane de tilleul, an infusion of linden flowers, or tisane de menthe, an infusion of mint leaves, but the French seem to use it interchangeably with the word “infusion.” (Note: “tisane” and infusion” are both cognates, each spelled and defined identically in both French and English.)
In contrast, the French word “thé” is used any time the tea plant provides one or more ingredients to an infusion, whether exclusively or in combination with non-tea ingredients. “Thé” is never used when the tea plant is absent, with the inexplicable exception of Rooibos, as it is called “thé rouge” in French in spite having no tea in it. Other infusions of herbs, flowers, fruits, etc. are identified with the structure of “infusion of x” or “tisane of y,” which is perfectly useful and clear.
I also looked into what terms the Chinese and Koreans used for their traditional non-tea infusions. The Chinese have a lot of flower infusions, which in translation are usually called “flower teas” or just called by exactly what they are: lotus flowers (Jin Lian Hua), osmanthus (Gui Hua), chrysanthemum (Ju Hua), rose bud (Mei Gui Hua), etc. Note: “Hua” in Mandarin means “flower.” Usually if something Chinese is called an “herbal tea” it has medicinal properties. Jiao Gu Lan, (Gynostemma Phentaphyllum) is a good example.
The Koreans have a number of traditional non-tea infusions, such as okusu-cha, which is roasted corn, bori-cha, which is roasted barley, and yuja-cha, which is a fermented citron tea, sold in jars like marmalade. Note that all of the English transliterations of the Korean end in “cha,” which would indicate that in Korea “cha” means a lot more than exclusively an infusion of tea plants.
The essence of what I was searching for was a way to clearly and accurately refer to infusions of flowers, fruits or herbs that do not contain tea. But I think that for the most part this goal was misguided. I don’t have much need for an all-encompassing label other than as the category for for “not-tea, not-coffee, not-chocolate.” “Herbal tea” is clearly a vague and misleading term since the ingredients are not always herbs, so I am unlikely to ever make use of it. If I want to write about an infusion of violet petals I can call it “infusion of violet.” Although I haven’t completely made peace with the word “tisane” it will probably suffice when nothing more specific suits the purpose. It does have the benefit of being commonly used in a consistent manner, so it is not prone to misinterpretation.
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