Ladies and gentlemen, there is a national cover-up afoot! Our vocabulary would lead us to believe that the energizing element in both coffee and tea is one and the same, caffeine. Not so! At least, according to the Spanish. Caffeine (cafeína) is in café but NOT in tea (té)…that would be teína, of course.
Julia unexpectedly walked into this debate a couple of weeks ago at a roadside café. As a busy waiter paused to listen to her order, Julia told him ” un té.” The waiter rushed off to complete her and the many other patrons demands, and as he happened to rush by her again a moment later, Julia remembered she wanted to modify her order, and told him “descafeinado, por favor” (de-caffeinated, please). The waiter nodded at her and sped off once more. A minute later, he arrived with Julia’s tea…and a de-caffeinated coffee.
“I’m sorry,” Julia said, “I only ordered tea.”
“No, you didn’t, miss,” the waiter replied, “You asked for a tea. Then you asked for a descafeinado.”
“Actually, I just wanted a de-caffeinated tea,” Julia tried to clarify.
Looking at her with as much surprise as if she had just told him that Spain hadn’t actually won the 2010 World Cup he responded “What are you talking about? Tea doesn’t have caffeine.”
Julia wanted to argue that yes, indeed there was caffeine in tea, but she could see she was in a minority position as her co-worker near-by confirmed the waiter’s pronouncement.
“You’re thinking of teína,” her co-worker said, trying to help, “teína is in tea, cafeína is in café” he continued matter-of-factly.
Sensing herself defeated, Julia held her tongue but later told me the story.
The very next week, one of the teachers in my department offered me some tea, and he added, in Spanish, “I have tea with or without teína. What’s the English word for teína again?” I tried to explain what Julia had attempted, that we use the word “caffeine” for both coffee and tea, but his doubtful look made me suppose he didn’t entirely believe me.
How to solve this difference of opinion? Wikipedia is very helpful. It states that caffeine is obtained by “infusions extracted from the bean of the coffee plant and the leaves of the tea bush.” When “teína” is typed into the Spanish Wikipedia search engine, the page re-directs to the “cafeína” page. And finally, when “teína” is translated by a Spanish-English on-line dictionary, the result is “caffeine.” Now, none of these methods are exactly scientific or conclusive, but I like to think it at least justifies our non-discriminatory use of the word. Just take care when ordering drinks in Spain…you may end up with a surprise…and a debate!