The Meaning and Origin of the Expression: Not My Cup of Tea
Something or someone that one dislikes or finds disagreeable.
Tea has been around for a very long time, and so has the British slang term for it – ‘char’. Tea was widely known in the west by this version of the Mandarin ch’a before it was called ‘tea’. The Dutch adventurer Jan Huygen van Linschoten is credited as being one of the first people to describe its use as a drink, in Discours of voyages into ye Easte & West Indies, 1598:
“The aforesaid warme water is made with the powder of a certaine hearbe called Chaa.”
‘My cup of tea’ first became used in the 1800’s to describe someone or something that one liked.
And, it is still one of the many tea-related phrases that are commonly used in modern society. You may hear iterations like ‘Not for all the tea in China’, ‘I could murder a cup of tea’, ‘Tea and sympathy’, as well as others.
In the early 1900’s, a ‘cup of tea’ was synonymous with acceptability and became the phrase given to close friends and family, in particular, people with life-enhancing qualities. William de Morgan, Edwardian artist and novelist, used the phrase in his novel Somehow Good, 1908, where he explained its meaning:
“He may be a bit hot-tempered and impulsive… otherwise, it’s simply impossible to help liking him.” To which Sally replied, borrowing an expression from Ann the housemaid, that Fenwick was a “cup of tea”.
People, places and things which one strongly liked continued to be called ‘my cup of tea’ in the early 1930s. Nancy Mitford was one of the first to use the term in print, in the comic novel Christmas Pudding, 1932:
“I’m not at all sure I wouldn’t rather marry Aunt Loudie. She’s even more my cup of tea in many ways.”
Going from Positive to Negative
Today, the expression is more often than not used in the negative connotation ‘not my cup of tea’ – meaning not one’s choice or preference. This negative usage is credited with beginning during World War II. One of the first examples of this is found in Hal Boyle’s Leaves From a War Correspondent’s Notebook column, which described English life and manners for an American audience. The column provided the American counterpart to Alister Cooke’s Letter from America and was syndicated in various US papers. In 1944, Boyle wrote:
[In England] You don’t say someone gives you a pain in the neck. You just remark “He’s not my cup of tea.”
“Some people love going on long road trips, but it’s not my cup of tea.”
“I know that sporting events are not your cup of tea, but you really should try going to a baseball game at least once in your life.”
“I don’t really like Italian food. It’s just not my cup of tea.”
RELATED HISTORICAL PHOTOS:
A young girl enjoying a cup of tea provided by advancing Allied armies in a sector of Europe recently cleared of Hitler’s troops (1944).
Boris Karloff drinking tea on the set of Frankenstein – USA 1931.
Australian Family Having Afternoon Tea – 1900. (bonzle.com)