Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, in his latest newsletter, has a great entry about the phrase Earl Grey tea:

Various stories link it to the second Earl Grey, who was British prime minister between 1830 and 1834 and largely responsible for the Great Reform Act of 1832 as well as removing the monopoly of the East India Company on importing tea from China…. The etymological problem for the OED was that the first example of the term Earl Grey tea it had on record was dated 1929….

The story took a surprising twist when researchers on the Foods of England site found that Charlton and Co had advertised a tea in 1867 as the rather expensive “celebrated Grey mixture”, with no reference to any aristocratic connection, though it did boast of its “most distinguished patronage”. Might the business have added a noble association later on as a marketing ploy, one that was to be copied by others? It could well have done. Victorian advertisers weren’t renowned for their strict adherence to truth.

There’s more, including a discussion of the disreputable adulteration of tea with bergamot. As Quinion says, “at times a search for the provenance of a term turns into an intriguing detective story with an unexpected dénouement.” (Via Etymolist.)


  1. Here’s the Oxford Dictionaries Oxford Wordblog post:

  2. Jacksons are the ones who claim to have had the recipe from the second Earl Grey, so why doesn’t someone ask them? Their web site is broken, which doesn’t bode well.
    When I was young, Earl Grey was just known as China tea. This poncy “Earl Grey” stuff didn’t appear until the late ’60s, though I’m not saying it wasn’t invented before that. Anyway, I’m drinking Lapsang Souchong at the moment. I’m not drinking any Earl Grey, I got tired of it. For Indian, I alternate Assam, Darjeeling and Ceylon teabags through the day, starting with Ceylon, the weakest, in the early morning. I remember reading that Eric Blair kept a big pot of tea on his wood stove, and he just poured cup after cup from the same brew all day long. Lazy bastard, no wonder he died young.

  3. Red Brook CTC rulz. Loose of course. Indian tea is what India drinks.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Lady Grey tea.
    I win.

  5. Wow – I update my blog once in a blue moon, and Hat links to it. Maybe I really ought to start blogging more. 😉

  6. It ought to be called Countess Grey tea by analogy to Earl Grey, but maybe they were trying to hook up to Lady Jane Grey and make it a bit vaguely royal sounding.
    Lady Grey tea is a modern invention, created by Twinings in the early 1990s to appeal to the Nordic market, who found Earl Grey tea too pungent.[2] It first went on sale in Norway in 1994 and in Britain in 1996.
    To appeal to the nordic market? Haha, that’s ridiculous, I AM the nordic market. There are only about 20m people in the whole of Scandinavia, and none of them drinks tea unless they’re very, very ill.

  7. I update my blog once in a blue moon, and Hat links to it. Maybe I really ought to start blogging more
    It’s quality, not quantity that draws the attention of the Hat.

  8. Marc Leavitt says

    You’ve probably seen it, but if not, take a look at the Wikipedia entry for “Earl Grey Tea.”

  9. Wow – I update my blog once in a blue moon, and Hat links to it.
    The joys of Google Reader!
    You’ve probably seen it, but if not, take a look at the Wikipedia entry for “Earl Grey Tea.”
    I hadn’t seen it, but what about it?

  10. Another product with a spurious name is Major Grey’s Chutney. Unrelated, I believe, to the Earl.

  11. des von bladet says

    I mostly drink what Mr Lipton is proud to bill “Russian Earl Grey”, which adds some citrus to dilute the bergamot.
    Before that I preferred Büntings Ostfriesische tea, but that is gratuitously hard to come by here a few kilometres down the road.

  12. Pretty much everything sold by Mr. Lipton, under whatever name, seems to me of dubious quality these days. Anyway, I am glad to know my natural dislike of Earl Grey is vindicated by its unhealthy provenance. I am also relieved to be living in the age of alkali nitrates and glutamates. No lead chromate anymore! I could stomach the rest – Prussian blue, although a cyanide, is barely toxic, as are copper carbonate and graphite, misleadingly called black lead – but real lead, please no.

  13. You haven’t mentioned Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s preference for “Earl Grey, hot”. I should think he would know about its dubious provenance, but maybe he doesn’t care. Shall we assume somebody on Star Trek’s writing staff is a fan of the tea?

  14. Oh, well, if we’re going to outer space with this, there’s also Doulas Adams’s nutramatic machine that consistently produced something “almost, but not entirely, unlike tea”.

  15. Yesterday I sent an email asking where in Norway I can buy Büntings Ostfriesische tea, but they haven’t replied. This is quite right of them: no one in their right mind should care about the nordic demand for tea.

  16. Graham Asher says

    See Sweden is at number 69 in the list, with about 1/3 UK consumption, Norway quite a lot lower at number 96. I had some excellent tea last time I was in Sweden, but that was a gift to my host from the Indian ambassador. When I lived in Sweden in the 70s Early Grey was all the rage.

  17. Graham Asher says

    (I meant Earl Grey of course. New keyboard.)

  18. I like the idea of Early Grey though. Where can I find some?

  19. Coming soon to a subway car near you, the revealing story of British family life, Fifty Shades Of Earl Grey.

  20. My revealing story of Britsh kitchens, Fifty Shades of Gravy, has so far been rejected by 18 major publishers.

  21. Yesterday I received this:

    Dear Sir Artur,

    Thank you for your interest in our products. I regret to inform you that we can not send our products to Norway. There are also, to our knowledge, no supermarkets in Norway selling our tea. I hope to have helped you with this answer at least a little.

    friendly greetings
    J. Bünting Teehandelshaus GmbH

    – Yes, it confirms my suspicions about the importance of the nordic market to world teehandlers.

  22. Well, I see you’ve gotten the sword on the shoulder at last, AJP, and about time too.

  23. IM LATE was some years ago inscribed on an Ontario vanity license plate affixed to a white VW Rabbit (known in much of the rest of the world as a Golf); the sentiment obtains with respect to my joining this (I hope not mad) Hatters’ Earl Grey tea party.
    The Earl Grey in question was the second; the fourth served as a governor general of Canada and established that country’s Grey Cup, in our time presented to the champion team of the Canadian Football League.
    Around the time I spotted that license plate I was working with a consortium of polystyrene producers, single-use product manufacturers and bulk-product purchasers/users. A plastics engineer from one of the producers told me never to drink Earl Grey tea from a foamed-polystyrene cup as oil of bergamot is a natural solvent for polystyrene. I tried now to find a paper supporting that statement but cannot, though this is close. That same engineer quipped that the, er, trade term for the white foamed-polystyrene chips often used as packing material was ghost turds.

  24. Thanks, John. I may as well admit I’m faking it with the knighthood, but they’re not to know.
    I wonder if anyone’s bothered to let them know at Buckingham Palace about not serving Earl Grey in polystyrene cups.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Anything in polystyrene cups tastes terrible. I would not be surprised if no senior member of the royal family had even seen such a cup (the younger ones, probably yes, because they have been to school away from the palace and have also served in the military). Once on a Canadian visit, Prince Charles was served tea not only made with a tea bag but with the bag still in the cup, and it turned out he had never seen one before.

  26. As the retired adult entertainment star Sasha Grey is making a grand tour across Russia, she might think of introducing her own brand of tea, Lady Alexandra Grey.
    Or Pearl Grey perhaps.

  27. Adelfons says

    I wonder how Earl (or Pearl) Grey will taste in the mushroom cups of our brave future:
    (Subscription only, but you know, particular toe nails and all that.)

  28. “Fifty Shades Of Earl Grey” – actually, if you believe this site, there are 128 shades of Earl Grey

  29. Victorian advertisers weren’t renowned for their strict adherence to truth.

    As opposed to … ?

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