Yes, I Know That Chai Means Tea

Yes, I know that the word "chai" literally just means "tea" in Hindi (and other languages) and that the term "chai tea" is therefore technically redundant. I don't care. I will still occasionally say "chai tea" and I don't feel like I'm committing some kind of linguistic sin by doing so.

The English translation of "chai" is, of course, "tea" and it refers to a very generic category of usually hot and often caffeinated beverages made from steeping various kinds of leaves. On the other hand, the word "chai" in English usually refers to a very specific kind of spiced tea, often taken with milk, that Westerners typically associate with the culinary tradition of South Asia. One would not normally use the word "chai" in English to refer to the bog standard Orange Pekoe that one might drink for a caffeine fix in the morning before work.

I could just use the word "chai" on its own to refer to this spiced beverage and leave it at that, but if I'm comparing it to other kinds of tea, like Earl Grey or Irish Breakfast, then I might add the word "tea" after each item to stress the unifying concept. So I might say "Earl Grey tea", "Irish Breakfast tea" or (the horror!) "chai tea".

My point is that the word "chai" in English doesn't mean the same thing as it does in other languages, despite being borrowed from those languages. Sometimes chai is used as more of an adjective than a noun, and that's just how languages work. They borrow words and they change them.

It's exactly the same battle with a word like "naan". I know it just means "bread" in Persian but that's simply not how the word is used in English. In English it refers to a specific kind of flat bread, usually made in a specific kind of oven. I mean, a French baguette is just "bread" as well, but I suspect you wouldn't use the word "naan" to describe it.

And yes, I would use the (technically redundant) combination "naan bread" if, like the tea example above, I was trying to differentiate naan from various other kinds of bread, like sourdough or pita, and I wanted to emphasize the unifying characteristic of all the things I was talking about.

So stop with the sanctimonious word policing, already! Languages evolve and trade, and this is just one example in a very long line of examples.


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