Tea Caddy.

This is not a profound post, but my curiosity has been aroused and must be satisfied. I looked up the Russian word чайница and found it defined as “tea caddy.” I called to my wife “What’s a tea caddy?” She had no idea. Fortunately, the internet came to our rescue in the form of Wikipedia: “A tea caddy is a box, jar, canister, or other receptacle used to store tea.” (They go on to add that “the word is believed to be derived from catty, the Chinese pound,” which is interesting in itself.) Simple and straightforward, except that I’ve never heard of such a thing; if I had a jar of tea I’d just call it a jar of tea. Is this a UK word, an obsolete word, what? Are you familiar with the term?


  1. Tom Ackroyd says

    Definitely understood in the UK. Also, a Google image-search for “tea caddy”will give you a good idea.

    Growing up in the UK in the 60s, we put tea into the teapot from a wall-mounted dispensing tea caddy like this:

  2. I’ve heard of desk caddies, TV caddies, and shower caddies. These are multi-compartment boxes with a handle. I always assumed that they were an extension of “(golf) caddy”, i.e. an entity to carry the miscellaneous crap associated with some activity. I’m surprised to hear that a tea caddy is just a box for tea itself, and not a more complicated object with compartments for teaspoons, sugar, saucers, etc.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Perfectly normal and familiar in UK usage.

  4. “Tea caddy” and “tea cosy” are a doublet in my mind. I understand them to be unremarkable British terms, for which I know the meanings even though I would never use them as part of my American English.

  5. “Tea caddy” is often used in English-language discussions of chaki. Japanese tea caddies typically hold much less than a catty of tea.

    OED gives the etymology of “catty” as < Malay-Javanese kātī, katī, but I don’t know whether “Malay-Javanese” here is supposed to refer to a version of Malay spoken on Java, a loan from Javanese into Malay, or something else.

    As we might expect, “catty” seems to have first reached English via Portuguese and Dutch: the two earliest citations in the OED (1555, 1598) are in translated works. The earliest citation to a work originally composed in English (1605) was written by John Davis, the English pilot of a Dutch vessel. (“Their pound they call a Catt” – “they” being the Aceh Sultanate.)

  6. @Brett: Yeah, I’m familiar with the terms but have never really used them.

    Relatedly, do any other Americans here put milk in their tea? I do, but I’ve heard that it’s rare among people who don’t have recent family ties to Britain or Ireland.

  7. It’s cromulent book-British. Don’t know that I’ve ever heard it in the wild.

  8. To me ‘tea caddy’ is almost synonymous with the ‘black jap’ box (A square container with hinged lid, black with white, read and gold design featuring a stylized ‘oriental’ illustration.) A couple of years ago I tried to get to the roots of this classic design, but I didn’t get very far. Does anyone know where it comes from, and what made it ubiquitous?

  9. I have nothing against чайница as a tea box or caddy but I can’t remember the Russian word being used in this sense. It must be dated or regional. My grandparents used to store tea in old tin boxes – square containers with hinged lids, as Popup says, some fancy-looking, others plain – but I don’t think they had a special word for them. By default, I perceive чайница as the female form of чайник in the sense of “dummy” or “newby,” as in “Coding for Dummies.”

  10. Re: milk in tea. I’m an American and, absolutely yes. There *must* be milk. (A decision I reached independently, having come from a fairly non-tea-drinking family that hasn’t had fresh Irish or British influence for at least five generations.)

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Perfectly familiar, although I haven’t seen one for a while – I don’t think I know anyone who uses loose tea. My great aunt, who must have been in her 40s when teabags became popular, had an old one and kept her teabags in it.

  12. Lars (the original one) says

    Loose leaf tea kept in caddies is alive if not well in Sweden and Denmark, as is brewing your tea in a proper pre-warmed pot under a cosy instead of bunging a tea bag in a mug where the water will be under 80 degrees in four seconds flat and only succeed in extracting some color, lots of tannins and any artificial flavoring that may have been added. (I belong to a family of tea drinkers).

    But finding a tea shop that will serve tea in pots is not easy, you are lucky to find a café that pre-warms the glass so the tea has a chance to steep properly.

  13. According to OED:

    Etymology: apparently a corruption of catty n.1, Malay kati, a weight equal to 1⅓ lb. avoirdupois.

    a. A small box for holding tea. Usually tea-caddy.
    b. attrib. and Comb., as caddy-spoon n. a short-handled spoon of a special shape used for measuring tea out of the caddy.

    a. orig. U.S. A can with a lid, for water, tobacco, biscuits, etc.
    b. gen. A storage container for objects (usu. small) in everyday use.

    Note that (tea-)caddy is not qualified as British. In sense 1.a, OED quotes William Cowper (1793):

    When you went you took with you the key of the caddy.

    Indeed, some early tea-caddies could be locked, like this one, in which case they could also be called tea-chests (a word marked “obsolete” by the OED with the comment: “c1850 [Remembered in use at Cambridge]”).

    I’m quite familiar with sense 2.b (a small box/chest for anything), as in these quotations:

    1976 National Observer (U.S.) 12 June 17/2 The 4-drawer caddy comes in your choice of red, yellow or orange. Sliding white drawers hold stamps, tacks, paper-clips, [etc.].
    1977 Observer 13 Feb. 13/7 (advt.) Shoe Caddy holds 6 pairs of shoes in individual..compartments.
    1982 New Scientist 21 Oct. 162/1 The discs are housed in caddies much like those used for the floppy discs in personal and mini computers.

  14. Damn, for some reason I always assumed “tea caddy” was another name for tea strainers / tea balls / tea infusers / Teeeier! (in retrospect, there are enough names for those things already.)

  15. I am familiar enough with the word to be surprised hat is not. Which said, I doubt I have ever used it: not for the aluminium canister in which my mother kept tea-leaves and, latterly, teabags; nor for those pots with “tea” on the outside that are sold in matching sets alongside “coffee” and “sugar”. A tea caddy belongs in the breakfast room of a stately pile.

  16. It makes me think of Austen and Georgette Be her, but that may be sampling bias on my part.

  17. I have already used my tea caddy three times today.

  18. Can only confirm comments from other Brits: the tea caddy is alive and well and used several times a day in my household. Emphatically not a “stately pile”. (Yes, sadly tea-bags, not loose.)

    From the ones I know, they must be tin or lacquerware, with tight-fitting lid. A china jar with cork lid isn’t a “caddy” — can’t really say why, just isn’t. A china jar with china lid is not airtight: useless.

  19. Lars (the original one) says

    Ah yes, the good old days of CD-ROM caddies as Piotr reminds us — I vaguely remember the ones that were separate and were inserted with the CD inside, but the sliding tray (“cup holder”) on later stationary and laptop PC models could be called a caddy as well, I’m sure.

  20. I have nothing against чайница as a tea box or caddy but I can’t remember the Russian word being used in this sense. It must be dated or regional.

    Well, I saw it in Oblomov; a ruscorpora.ru search doesn’t find much recent usage. (I like this, from Chukovsky’s От двух до пяти [1933-1965]: “Другой ребенок, назвавший солонку сольницей, тоже был более чем прав: если вместилище чая ― чайница, а вместилище сахара ― сахарница, то вместилище соли никак не солонка, а сольница.”)

  21. @Lazar: I’ll make so bold as to interpret American as ‘from the Americas’ rather than just the USA, and mention that putting milk in one’s tea is unremarkable to this Argentinean with no British or Irish ancestry (though I personally abhor the practice, and would never add anything but a dash of lemon to a decent tea).

  22. Lemon and sugar for me, but of course I don’t make decent tea, and I don’t drink it often.

  23. I had heard the word, but had misunderstood its meaning. Essentially, what RL said goes for me.

  24. Jen in Edinburgh says

    But caddy in the golf sense is apparently from cadet, via the name for a group of Edinburgh messengers and porters. (The OED spells it caddie, but neither looks right to me!)

  25. I live in Hong Kong, so I buy loose leaf tea by the catty at the local tea store down the block. However, I don’t call my storage device at home a “tea caddy”; I call it a “plastic container.”

  26. Familiar with the term but as a colonial, like Squiffy I have only read the term, never heard it in speech.

    TIL that ‘cromulent’ is a neologism from The Simpsons..

  27. matematichica says

    I’m definitely familiar with the term and think of a tea caddy as a more elaborate item than a tea tin. I might call a nice wooden box with compartments for multiple types of tea bags a tea caddy as well as a large-ish solid box for storing loose leaf tea. (I have a couple small tea tins at my desk that store about 10 cups’ worth of tea and would not call them caddies.) One sees tea caddies in museums fairly regularly in the section with antique housewares as well as reading about them.

    With regards to milk in tea: my family sometimes takes milk in some kinds of tea and has no particular connect to the British Isles. My mom likes milk in her peach flavored black tea and my sister takes milk in her peppermint tea (more accurately tisane, of course, but I know no one who really makes that distinction.) I drink black tea without milk most of the time, but I also prefer darjeeling which is kind of pointless with milk.

  28. OED gives the etymology of “catty” as < Malay-Javanese kātī, katī, but I don’t know whether “Malay-Javanese” here is supposed to refer to a version of Malay spoken on Java, a loan from Javanese into Malay, or something else

    The word can be found in several Austronesian languages. The Austronesian Comparative Dictionary lists Bikol and Ilokano káti, Kadazan-Dusun katiʔ, Tombonuwo kati and Toba Batak hati and marks them all as borrowings from Malay kati (the Javanese word is the same, by the way). No deeper source is identified in the ACD. It may be a borrowing from Tamil, where kaṭṭi is a unit of weight = 25 palams (approximately 946 g). That’s almost twice as much as a catty, but Tamil traders may have used half-kaṭṭi weights, roughly equivalent to the Chinese 斤 (jīn). The Tamil meaning is listed in the Tamil Lexicon as one of the senses of kaṭṭi ‘clod, lump’, hence ‘something swollen, boil, tumour, enlarged spleen, foetus’, but also e.g. ‘bar of gold’. So presumably it would have been the weight of a standard “lump”.

  29. Familiar, I am fairly certain, to Americans who frequent antique shops and auctions. Definitely the word I would use to describe one there.

  30. I have three tea caddies. Not posh, not ‘stately pile’, not book-English. But I use loose tea less often than I used to.

  31. I have a few tins as well as a somewhat larger wooden “box for storing loose leaf tea” (to quote matematichica), which once held first-flush Darjeeling. Generally speaking, Russians are still fond of loose-leaf tea so it’s reasonable to assume that tea boxes are still in wide use. Oddly, the obvious word for these containers, чайница, seems to have drifted away from its original meaning: in addition to “female newby/dummy” it can also mean a female tea lover and a teapot cover doll.

  32. speedwell says

    I make the tisane/tea distinction, but nobody I know in America, Ireland, or the UK does except people with an herbalism background.

    My family has always been orange-pekoe-with-milk-and-sugar, and rarely drank tea, which is probably because we knew no better. But we lived in the American South and did “sweet tea” as if we were trying to give ourselves diabetes overnight. I didn’t do proper-black-Assam-with-milk until I married my Northern Irish husband. Here in Ireland I belong to an “international club” and they have designated me to do a “Fourth of July event” which everyone rightly assumes will be a barbecue. I plan to serve iced tea. I have my escape route planned, thanks. 🙂

  33. Trond Engen says

    Jen in Edinburgh: caddy in the golf sense is apparently from cadet

    Alexei K.: By default, I perceive чайница as the female form of чайник in the sense of “dummy” or “newby,”

    Nothing to add but this exclamation mark!

  34. Standard issue term chez Casa Allen in Connecticut, I expect because of a half British spouse; lemon and sugar for me, goat milk for her, definitely not milk in first, thank you very much.

    Recently we have been turned on to ginger/turmeric by the British connections – surprisingly good.

  35. The Tamil meaning is listed in the Tamil Lexicon as one of the senses of kaṭṭi ‘clod, lump’.

    From an earlier Dravidian word meaning, apparently, ‘hard’.

  36. When I read this post, the object that appeared in my occiput was the tea caddy, but that was just crossed neurons.
    I don’t have a caddy, but use a ceramic container with cork lid labelled moutard de Mieaux in wax, apparently not kosher. Used to have a Chinese tin.
    Definitely drink tea neat. My Mum used to say that, at my first (and only) tea party at the age of four I drank it with milk and sugar and promptly vomited. Probably too much sugar, but since then I’ve said that the English don’t know how to drink tea properly. And black yet!

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