Spill the Tea.

I was reading this MetaFilter post, which begins:

“The whole story of why we’ll never get an LBD movie.” Over a year ago, Ashley Clements started producing The Look Back Diaries. After all of the episodes were discussed, she’s started discussing the behind-the-scenes tea […]

At this point I was distracted from wondering what the Look Back Diaries might be and started wondering about this use of “tea.” Fortunately, Google was at hand, and the first hit was this Later page:

In slang, “tea” is a term used to refer to gossip or inside information. It is often used in the phrase “spill the tea” or “serve the tea,” which means to share juicy or exclusive details about a situation or person.

In African American Vernacular English (AAVE), “tea” is used as slang to refer to gossip, news, or personal information. The origin of the term is uncertain, but it is believed to have originated in the LGBTQ+ community and then spread to other aspects of African American culture before being adopted by mainstream culture. The term “spilling tea” is often used to describe the act of sharing gossip or revealing personal information.

It goes on to share some idiotic ideas about where the term might have originated (yes, the word “acronym” crops up), but I get the idea, and once again am grateful for the instant knowledge available at the touch of a keyboard. Surprisingly, this sense is not in Green’s, and I wonder if my readers are familiar with it.


  1. Yes, I’ve heard/read “spill the tea,” though I’ve heard it often enough that I don’t remember where or when I first encountered it.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    I am aware of the usage (don’t use it myself), but feel like I have become aware of it — or at least noticed a sufficient critical mass of people using it that now I remember what it means from one instance to the next — within the last year or two. It feels like a weird portmanteau between “spill the beans” and “read the tea-leaves,” although I doubt that’s the actual historical origin …

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I should note that I don’t think I’ve personally noticed uses of “tea” to mean “inside information” outside the context of the “spill the tea” idiom, just as “beans” does not on a freestanding basis typically refer to what it refers to in the idiom “spill the beans.”

  4. It is very widely used in pop culture these days. Eg, in the chorus of Taylor Swift’s big new song Anti Hero, “I’m the problem, it’s me, At tea time, everyone agrees” refers to “when people are gossiping” not “in the afternoon”.

    I find the AAVE link silly, though. The term is definitely used in the gay community, but “spill the tea/spill the beans” obviously has a much older history.

  5. Keith Ivey says

    I think “spill the beans” refers more to secrets generally than to gossip. If you accidentally let someone know about a surprise party, that’s spilling the beans, but I don’t believe it’s spilling the tea.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Yes, I didn’t mean to suggest that “spill the tea” was a synonym for “spill the beans,” only that the parallelism in the construction of the respective idioms is striking.

    Both the gay community and black community have been fairly productive originators of slang expressions that spread into wider use in AmEng over the last few generations, but of course Churchill and Einstein and Lincoln also really did say a lot of quotable things, just not quite as many as are commonly attributed to them without adequate fact-checking, so one needs evidence-driven lexicographic research about where a given locution seems to have first originated and then how it spread – and of course it may have spread through multiple vectors from its original place of origin rather than just going from language community A then to B then to C then to D in a strict linear series.

  7. Keith Ivey says

    A related expression is “sipping tea” for listening to gossip (with a connotation of “minding my own business” or “I’m not saying anything”), which I think was the first one I encountered (sometimes with an image of Kermit the Frog drinking tea). I wonder if it was the original from which “serving tea” and then “spilling tea” developed.

  8. “I’m the problem, it’s me, At tea time, everyone agrees” refers to “when people are gossiping” not “in the afternoon”.

    I would never in a million years have gotten that.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    OTOH, I am going to suspect on generational grounds that hat has no difficulty parsing these 1973-vintage Aerosmith lyrics:

    “Keep in touch with Mama Kin
    Tell her where you’ve gone and been
    Living out your fantasy
    Sleeping late and smoking tea”

    That’s the drug-slang sense of “tea” which wiktionary calls “dated” and was indeed already dated by my own late-Seventies adolescence when being taught dated-to-archaic-to-possibly-hoax-based drug slang was a standard part of the public-junior-high-school “health” class curriculum. It did sometimes make it easier to exegete older texts, of course.

  10. I can parse the lyrics with no difficulty, but it wasn’t my/our usage, whether because it was outdated by the late ’60s or because it wasn’t a SoCal thing.

  11. Last OED cite:

    1979 High Times Mar. 18/2 Consider the number of words that served for a time and then passed into embarrassed silence. ‘Muggles’ and ‘tea’—words that sound right only in Raymond Chandler novels now.

  12. Thompson, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, had fun with “tea shades”—supposedly a term for sunglasses used by dope fiends, presented in earnest at a cop conference. Maybe he made it up.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Muggles? Interesting.

  14. I’ve seen it written “spill the T” enough that I assumed it was indisputably short for Truth. That does seem to be the popular etymology, at least. An UrbanDictionary search result says “‘spill the tea’ is what straight white girls say, while ‘spill the T’ is what queens and gays say.” If that’s not just bullshit, it’s the first orthographic shibboleth between homophones in English I’ve ever come across.

  15. Muggles? Interesting.


  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Green’s sourcing in one of the “muggles” entries to a 1952 scholarly journal article entitled “Teen-Age Hophead Jargon” (co-written by two members of the San Diego State faculty, based on goodness knows what sort of fieldwork) is totally awesome.

  17. spotted towhee says

    i want to say i first encountered ‘spill the tea’ in the mid 2010s. my impression is that it originated among drag queens & kings, and spread from there to the rest of the LGBT community (and beyond). i don’t know for certain if it originated among black lgbt people specifically but i know that was claimed often & early, and i would not be surprised to find it’s true.

    “An UrbanDictionary search result says “‘spill the tea’ is what straight white girls say, while ‘spill the T’ is what queens and gays say.” If that’s not just bullshit, it’s the first orthographic shibboleth between homophones in English I’ve ever come across.”
    i’m fairly certain this is totally made up. if we want an orthographic shibboleth between homophones we will have to orchestrate it ourselves.

  18. Keith Ivey says

    orthographic shibboleth between homophones

    New Mexicans seem to have a thing about spelling “chili” as “chile”.

  19. a 1952 scholarly journal article entitled “Teen-Age Hophead Jargon” (co-written by two members of the San Diego State faculty, based on goodness knows what sort of fieldwork)

    Acccording to the article, some of the material was based on interviews at Anthony Home, a.k.a. juvie. Muggles, however, is “Quoted in interview of Chief Charles T. Rogers, County Probation Officer of San Diego, radio broadcast, KSDO, San Diego”, and also appears in older printed sources. Mugglehead is attributed to the Los Angeles Police Department.

  20. Mugglehead is Tonstant Weader’s muddlehead?

    Wodehouse orthographic shibboleth:

    “Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?” said Wilfred.

    “ffinch-ffarrowmere,” corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

  21. ffinch-ffarrowmere

    It was a challenge for me once, when I was reading that story aloud.

    There’s an old Punch cartoon, where the caption is, “No, the dog’s name is Topsy, and my name is Lady Fiona ffyngle-ffoliott.”

  22. Muggle had a revival/re-invention. (Or am I being dumb and everybody knows that?)

    In today’s UK English, it’s broadened to anybody who’s failed to catch up with the scene. (= ‘unhip’, I guess). Sense 3 of the November 2004 offering at that link. (Am I being a muggle?)

  23. “spill the tea” (and “the tea” as “the inside story” more generally) is very specifically from the Ball/House scene, made up of poor and workingclass black and latine trans and queer folks (mainly trans women and gay men).

    it first entered other countercultural, especially black and latine, queer and trans circles as part of the set of Ball/House vocabulary and idioms that Paris Is Burning and the press attention that accompanied madonna’s Vogue video (and willie ninja’s performances touring with her) made accessible in the late 1980s/early 1990s. other examples: “mop” [steal, in particular used of designer clothes]; “throw shade” [insult, especially when done with style, often elliptically or by implication]; “work” [perform with extreme style, often as an exhortation]; and finger-snapping as a sign of approval or applause.

    it’s become used – often wildly inappropriately – in mainstream gay & lesbian circles and then in the straight world, in the last ten or so years, largely because of RuPaul’s Drag Race, with some added assistance from Pose and other commercial media projects set in or near the drag or Ball/House world.

    i feel sure, based on who i’ve heard use it in interviews of various kinds, that “spill the tea” goes back to at least the early days of the Ball Houses, which were founded in the 1960s in response to blatant racism in the trans/drag pageant world (and, reportedly, specifically to the 1967 nyc pageant hosted by flawless sabrina that was documented in the film The Queen). but it’s quite likely that it was in active use much earlier, since the contemporary Ball/House world has clear continuity with the harlem balls of the 1920s, and past them to earlier events into at least the mid-19thC.

    it’s possible that “spill the tea” appears in print in some of the harlem ball coverage of the 1920s-30s era – i don’t recall having seen it, but i haven’t read anything like all of what’s out there (and a lot of what i have read, i read a decade or three ago). that’s certainly where i’d start a search for an earliest printed appearance (which i’d assume lags 20-100 years behind its earliest use).

    i’ve got no theories on whether there’s a source beyond that, but i wouldn’t rule out “[news that will make you spill your] tea” (whether the tea in question is C. sinensis or C. sativa) combined with “spill the beans”.

  24. I doubt that “spilling the beans” usually refers to coffee beans, but that would narrow the jump to tea.

  25. Dang!
    So that’s where “throw shade” came from. That one is almost mainstream now.

  26. I agree that “spill the tea” has really only started showing up in bland, mainstream popular discourse in the last decade or so. Moreover, although I have seen plenty of printed references to the use of “tea” on its own in this sense, I have yet to encounter it in actual speech.

    Actually, while “spill the beans” is certainly much older (at least as an unmarked idiom), I wonder whether it (like “spill the tea”) might merely be one particularly standardized form of a more general productive construction using spill. These senses of spill do not really need a direct object,* and I have encountered lots of people using seemingly nonce coinages of the form, “spill the suace,” “spill the dope,” etc., with spill meaning “reveal.”

    * Imagine if you will, a fourteen-year-old coming home from summer camp and seeing her hometown friends for the first time in several weeks:

    Heather: So… how was camp? Did you meet anyone interesting?
    Veronica: Well….
    Heather: Was there a boy? Come on, spill!

  27. “other examples: “mop” [steal, in particular used of designer clothes]”

    I didn’t know that was Ball culture slang too.
    I first learned of that use of mop from the director’s commentary on
    one of John Waters’ 70s movies (I forget which exactly), as an example of
    slang his crew would use. Though the way he explained it, to mop something
    was specifically to break a storefront window, grab it, and run.

  28. Came here to say what Dusty said. I’ve been witnessing and using this phrase for years, and the most convincing origin I’ve heard was that it’s from Truth. The semantic juxtaposition with Kermit the frog’s tea-sipping meme has definitely helped the spread.

  29. the most convincing origin I’ve heard was that it’s from Truth.

    That’s convincing only if you don’t know how words originate. People love that kind of story, but it’s just a story. The facts are almost always more boring.

  30. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Next someone will find out that laser, fubar and snafu are from Iroquois or Berber or Basque. “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”, is it? Not very convincing, that’s obviously a post-hoc invention.

    “More boring,” says who? If Fubar came from Iroquois via Railwayman slang, I’d be chuffed.

  31. David Marjanović says

    “mop” [steal, in particular used of designer clothes];

    Also interesting – regional German mopsen.

    where “throw shade” came from. That one is almost mainstream now.

    Can confirm.

  32. I first recall seeing this phrase sometime before covid was on my radar but in the second half of Trump’s term, somewhere on the internet in the sort of venue where people much younger than me were complaining about Trump. I was happy to see vitriol about a person I didn’t like but it took me a little while for the phrase to rise to my attention as a set phrase and what it meant. It was only last August that I heard anyone actually say it out loud in real time, rather than on the internet.

  33. mop […] John Waters […] to mop something was specifically to break a storefront window, grab it, and run.

    this is one that i wouldn’t be surprised to find came from a broader use as “steal” in the black youth slang of the mid-1960s. certainly by the mid-80s in the Ball/House world it wasn’t specifically for that kind of hit-and-run theft, but in Paris Is Burning (and my other early encounters with it) it definitely involves a certain degree of brazenness, though not a lack of stealth – i think i remember one of jennie livingston’s interviewees describing dropping a coat on the floor and kicking it down the aisle and out the door of a store.

  34. If you are interested in learning more terms like this, the article below is one that I found informative and entertaining, especially the video, which starts with someone spilling lots of tea.


    (And my own newsletter, if I may be so bold, lists the latest English slang once a month: https://englishinprogress.substack.com/)

  35. Great idea for a newsletter!

  36. @Lars: acronyms for scientific words, that’s believable. That’s also normally well- documented. The same is true for the kind of abbreviations that are born from texting or internet chat. Anyway, you certainly know that your name is from “Let’s awesomely rock Scandinavia”.

  37. Some books dot Googling comes up with a cookbook by Billi Gordon, published 1986, entitled “You’ve Had Worse Things in Your Mouth,” from which another book (a 1998 book of Poems called Tea, by D.A.Powell, Wesleyan U. Press) contains this pull quote:

    “And when they got back to the kitchen, the cooks and helpers would ask the servers, ‘Well, did you spill the tea, girl?’ Meaning, of course, was the gossip good?”

    Billi Gordon, born Wilbert Anthony Gordon, at some point in their life (per Wikipedia bio) “began writing and performing as a woman.” (See rozele’s first post above.)

  38. Maybe somebody has a copy of that Billi Gordon cookbook; I’m not able to find its text online. But now that I think about it, the context of that quote about the cooks and helpers and servers might provide more of an origin story for the expression. The servers are picking up the gossip out there among the diners, but then they are asked, “did you spill the tea.” Which would seem to indicate that “spilling the tea” meant “picking up the gossip,” not dispensing it.

  39. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @Hans’ Artificial Noun Sequence, sorry, I had repressed that knowledge. But I’ll maintain that acronyms, scientific or not, are the boringest source of new words. I respect the guys who trawl the Great Scott to find a nice stem for their new species name, even if it’s wrong.

  40. @Martin:

    to me, the billi gordon version reads as “was what you overheard good enough to make you spill the tea you were serving guests”. so, at heart, a judgment about the quality of the gossip, and very much not a description of the action done to/with it. i think the Ball/House and current usage could easily be rooted in that – waiting tables (and some other kinds of restaurant work) being a traditional lavender-collar gig in a lot of places – but with the spilling transformed from assessment to action via “spill the beans” as the phrase moved out of the kitchen.

  41. just found an antedate in print!

    in the form of a news briefs column called “What’s The Tea” in a 1980 copy of Les Girls, a southern california magazine on “female impersonation”. the first paragraph helpfully explains: “What’s happening? Or, as those in the know say, ‘What’s the Tea?'”

  42. Great find!

  43. I recommend writing Jonathon Green (help@greensdictofslang.com) for this and other slang additions and updates. I have sent him several such, some of which came from this blog. He is interested and is quick to incorporate updates.

  44. Les Girls

    Thanks for that reference, rozele! It led me to discover the Digital Transgender Archive and its links to issues of Les Girls on archive.org.

    This will be as fun as the video series on the topic “Glingo” (on NY ballroom slang from 1980s and 1990s) in the video series “Homewerq” on Mike Diamond’s Youtube channel (as here on shambone and here).

  45. AP article by Mark Kennedy on Bernie Taupin’s new memoir:

    Taupin doesn’t avoid spilling tea. Of Andy Warhol, he writes: “Talking to Andy was like conversing with an 8-year-old girl” and he wasn’t a fan of Hugh Hefner: “He was the possessor of a perpetual, passive smirk that I found unsettling.”

  46. PlasticPaddy says

    As another passive smirker (also inappropriate smiler and even laugher) I suspect that Warhol may have employed this expression when feeling uncomfortable and frightened, with escape not being a good option….Being attacked and seriously wounded without warning by a nutcase would only have increased these feelings or the number of occasions for them.

  47. You’re conflating Warhol the 8-year-old girl with Hefner the passive smirker.

  48. PlasticPaddy says

    Oops. I was wondering why Warhol was not or was supposed to be a fan of Hefner😊 Clearly bedtime here.

  49. Warhol’s mumbling persona was endearing, but it was for the wider public. He didn’t get to where he was by talking that way to everyone. When his diaries were published, people were shocked about his very much not 8-year-old opinions of everyone around him, which were often coruscating. (Not sorry.)

  50. “mop” [steal, in particular used of designer clothes]”

    to mop something was specifically to break a storefront window, grab it, and run.

    Just heard mop in the wild in a very general sense ‘steal’ (as an idea) from Jaymes Mansfield here, after around the 7:50 mark (‘I can mop it later and redo them on my YouTube channel for content’).

  51. David Marjanović says

    I’ve seen mopsen as a euphemism for “steal” in German.

  52. Корова языком слизала (A cow licked it with its tongue)

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