Q From Gary Mason: In a recent letter to the editor in the Tucson daily newspaper, the writer claimed that spot of tea is an Americanism. Though he was born and bred in England, he had heard only Americans using the phrase and that the British would say cuppa instead. I asked a British friend about the letter and he said that spot of tea is used in Britain, but that it doesn’t mean having a cup of tea, but to having tea with food. Would you discuss this in your newsletter?
A It depends on who you are, where you are, how old you are, and even what you mean by tea.
The phrase a spot of tea is certainly known in the UK as well as the US — the letter writer is wrong to suggest it isn’t used this side of the Atlantic — though it sounds old-fashioned to me, being more my parents’ generation than mine. British newspapers include enough examples to show that it’s still about, though not to anything like the same extent as in the US. Some dictionaries report it’s mainly a British expression, but the written evidence shows the balance has tilted heavily towards the US in recent decades. Quite why Americans have taken it to their collective bosoms isn’t clear, though it does seem to be used very often in a tongue-in-cheek manner, as a mock-serious way of affecting to be British about consuming the drink.
By spot of tea, Americans usually mean a cup of tea by itself. It can have that meaning in the UK, but not by any means always. Your friend is right to say that it’s frequently connected with food. That’s because tea in Britain can refer to a meal. Which meal depends to some extent on where you live, but much more importantly on your social class.
In middle- or upper-class circles and in parts of southern Britain tea is in full afternoon tea, a light refreshment around 4pm that includes sandwiches and cakes as well as a nice cup of tea. It’s not so often encountered now. Its image is of a Wodehousian country-house meal for the leisured upper classes, whose most characteristic component is thin cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. It’s now often the preserve of posh hotels and traditional tea shops.
In northern parts of the UK (my geography is hand-wavingly broad-brush) and throughout most of Britain among working-class families, tea refers to a cooked evening meal, one that middle-class families may instead call dinner or supper (tea as the term for this meal has also been taken to Australia and New Zealand).
At the risk of further confusing you, there’s also high tea, eaten in the late afternoon or early evening; this is a cross between dinner and afternoon tea, typically consisting of a cooked dish or cold meat or fish (the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, written a century ago, says “a tea at which meat is served”; in my family when I was young, just after the Second World War, the highlight was tinned salmon) together with sandwiches and cake. Americans often get the idea wrong, thinking that high in the name means “high-class”, whereas it’s more of a working-class meal and high refers to its complexity or formality. Nancy Mitford had a character describe one variety in The Blessing:
It’s tea, you know, with cocoa and scones and eggs if you’ve got hens, and bacon if you’ve killed a pig and Bovril and kippers, and you have it late for tea, about six.
A drink of tea may be consumed with either type of meal, but as you may tell from Ms Mitford’s description, it’s not an essential accompaniment.
So spot of tea can refer to just a drink of tea or to a drink of tea with food, or even certain meals without the drink. It depends on where you are, who you are, the social situation, and the time of day. The meal sense turned up in an aside in the People newspaper in November 2006: “Six journalists were enjoying a spot of tea — that’s dinner to the more well-to-do among you.” Note the inverted snobbery: for southerners to call the meal tea is to be lower-class.
Incidentally, the spot part, long since fossilised into a fixed phrase, is an eighteenth-century slangy term that means a small amount or a little bit; it’s the source of several other British usages, such as the outmoded spot for a small alcoholic drink and more widely known expressions like a spot of bother and a spot of rain, plus the contracted in a spot, meaning that the speaker has some problem or is in trouble.