Herbata ‒ Word By Word
Popular since the 19th century, tea is the most popular beverage in Poland. It is drunk all day long, even before sleep.
In Communist Poland it was often served in a tall glass with an ornate metal cup-holder but the quality of the leaves left much to be desired.
While Poland is far from being the only nation with a soft spot for tea, the Polish word for tea is quite exceptional. herbatadistinguishes Polish sharply not only from other Slavic languages, but also from most other European vernaculars.
While most surrounding Slavic languages use the word ‘chai’ (as do non-Slavic Balkan languages, like Romanian, Greek, Albanian and Turkish), and Western languages use some variant of the word ‘tea’, Polish is virtually isolated in its use of an altogether different word, ‘herbata’. So how did Poles come up with this strange word?
The word actually goes back to the name of a brand of prepared tea leaves, a product most likely manufactured in the Netherlands (since the Dutch were the first to bring tea from China to Europe, and pioneered its trade).
The name of the brand was probably Herba Thee or some variation thereof: a combination of the Latin word herba (herb) and the Chinese word thee (the same word which came to mean tea in most Western European languages). In Poland, the name on the Dutch boxes became the generic name for the drink.
From Polish, herbata migrated into Lithuanian (where it’s called ‘arbata’) and Belarusian (where ‘harbata’ is used along the Eastern ‘chai’ word).
The Eastern ‘chai’ variant does appear in Polish: a kettle is called a czajnik. But beware, herbatnik is not a kettle, but a biscuit.) Of course, the water boiled in a czajnik is not only used to make tea. It can also be used to make coffee, or kawa in Polish. An establishment which specialises in serving kawa and herbata is called a kawiarnia
Herbata’s etymological path serves as proof that the Polish language developed very idiosyncratically compared to other Slavic languages. Latin left an especially strong mark, as herbata shows us.
Seen from another angle, herbata can be considered one of a couple of words in the Polish language which owe its name to a name of a brand. Other notable examples include rower (Polish word for a bicycle), adidasy, used of any trainers (also Nike or Puma), or neska, which is a popular way to refer to instant coffee (Nescaffe)
For other typical Polish drinks compare kompot, and other thirst-quenching drinks from Poland
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 29 July, 2016