Q&A: Spill the tea

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're having a tea party…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about “spilling the tea” recently. What does it mean?

A: Some think it’s simply the American version of Britain’s “spill the beans” – which means to share a secret. However, “Spill the tea” seems to be more nuanced than that – relating more to sharing gossip. 

Q: It does seem to only be Americans I hear using it.

A: That’s true – it is widely used in North America… and typically only used in place of “share the juicy gossip”, with scandalous overtones.

Q: Unlike “spilling the beans”?

A: Well yeah. The beans are any kind of secret. Sure, that secret could be scandalous, but it could also be anything currently unknown. For example, “Did you get the job? Spill the beans!”

Q: While the tea is only going to be gossip-related?

A: Exactly. “What happened after I left the office party? Spill the tea!”

Q: So why are we spilling beans or tea in the first place?

A: Good question. Let’s start with the word they have in common – “spill”. It came to English in the 1300s and originally its meaning was confined purely to killing – as in spilling blood.

Q: What about a “leadership spill” in politics?

A: That’s actually only an Australian thing – first recorded by the Canberra Times in 1945 and relating to the process of challenging for the leadership of a party. Perhaps it hints at spilling “blood” the figurative sense, or simply a “scattering” of things.

Q: Hmm okay. So when did “spill” start meaning “share”?

A: Well, it’s still considered colloquial to say “spill” to mean “divulge, disclose or tell”. The first actual recorded use of “spill the beans” wasn’t until 1902, at first meaning to cause and upset or spoil a situation, before ending up at “reveal a secret” by 1919. 

Q: I suppose if you unintentionally spill the beans, it can still spoil a situation.

A: Very true.

Q: So spilling beans is about a century old. But spilling tea is much newer, surely?

A: It is. But did you know it was originally “spill the T”?

Q: I did NOT!

A: The T stood for “truth”.

Q: Wow, that already makes a lot more sense.

A: This next part might surprise you though. It originated in black gay and drag culture. Spilling “T” for truth can be seen in 1994’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – which featured a transgender character who “spilled the T” in sharing gossip.

Q: When did “T” become “tea”?

A: That part is a little unclear, but the phrase went mainstream in the late 2010s thanks to the popularity of the reality show, Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

Q: So in this context, “tea” is gossip, dirt or juicy details. 

A: That’s right – and in the US, a number of ad campaigns have helped cement the idea that tea is synonymous with truth. Another slang term, “weak tea” has also arisen – relating to something being underwhelming or unimpressive.

Q: Now I don’t mean to be a drama queen, but just in case someone has ended up here after a Google search, I think we should also offer advice if someone has ACTUALLY spilled tea. Those tannins can be nasty, girlfriend!

A: Um, sure. Take equal amounts white vinegar, laundry powder and water to form a paste, then gently brush it onto the stain with an old toothbrush. Rinse and repeat.

Q: You know it! Mmm-hmmm.

A: It might be time for you to “sashay away”…


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