Tisane. It’s a French word I use even when speaking English. It means an infusion of dried leaves, petals, or other plant matter drunk either for pleasure or for medicinal effects. Essentially, it’s an herbal tea. But when I first learned to use the word in my college days back in Quebec, it was more often applied to something more along the lines of Red Zinger than chamomile tea.
I remember using the word when talking to a lovely Southern lady who had come up from the United States to set up a shop that sold flavoured teas. These were lovely loose teas in a hundred or more different flavours, and a lot of them reminded me of my beloved Celestial Seasonings tisanes. So I told her about them, and about the concept of a flavoured infusion such as she was selling – but without the tea leaves. She couldn’t get over the idea, and said she thought such a drink would be missing something!
Etymology of ‘Tisane’
The word tisane has actually has been part of the English lexicon since 1931, but few people are familiar with it. The word has travelled across the centuries and across many lands too. It came into English through French, where it originally referred to a decoction of hulled barley that would later become a base for a great many medicinal teas.
The earlier Latin and the original Greek words both referred to this barley drink. The Greek ptisánē (πτισάνη) meant something like “barley water,” and came from a root that meant “to crush,” “to peel,” or “to winnow.” By the 19th century the expression tisane had come to mean tea that was given to a sick person – not so much as a medicine, but as a part of a safe course of food and drink. This would, then, explain how a word that originally referred to a specific medicinal preparation came to mean something more like a table tea.
How to Pronounce ‘Tisane’
Tisane is pronounced roughly, “ti-ZAN.” If the person saying is a speaker of French, that initial consonant will be a little softer and will be pronounced with the tongue higher in the mouth. The result is a kind of blurring the sound into a hum. It’s kind of like “poutine”: it’s not an easy word for English speakers to pronounce. But it’s a neat word to know if you like to have fun with words!
Probably the most recognized line of tisanes sold today would be those made by Celestial Seasonings; they are certainly among my favourites! Most contain fruit or hibiscus petals for flavour and colouring. They are naturally caffeine-free, as they don’t contain any tea leaves. There are a wide range of flavours on offer: everything from Bengal Spice to Watermelon Lime Zinger. I remember the Zinger teas were very popular with my classmates back in college, while I preferred the spicier blends like Cranberry Cove and Almond Sunset.
Tisane may come in a teabag for your convenience, or it may be sold loose like some of today’s popular designer teas. The blend in the photo at the top of the page was labelled, “Mr. Ollivander’s Magic Potion fruit tea.” I quite like the name! Many thanks to Selena N.B.H. of Flickr for sharing her image!