This has always been a fascinating question which still confuses even the most British of Brits these days. Why do some people call their evening meal ‘tea’? So, first, let’s delve into a bit of background information on the real definition of tea.
There are basically two types: “low” tea and “high” tea.
Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria, is widely accredited with introducing the concept of “afternoon” or “low” tea to rich households. She would ask her butler to bring only tea, bread, butter, perhaps even a few scones to her chambers at around 5pm because she would feel slightly peckish, but could not eat a full meal yet. Eventually, she did this on a daily basis, even inviting her friends to her house to join in, and essentially creating a new type of social ritual.
This practice eventually trickled down into the working classes who worked long hours. They found that having a small snack in between the midday meal and evening meal would help boost energy levels.
“High” tea is actually dinner but has also come to mean a lavish afternoon tea. In the past, when actual afternoon tea could not be taken, high tea was the alternative. It combined snacks and a hearty meal together, and was usually served at about 6pm.
This eventually evolved into the lower classes calling their midday meal “dinner” and their evening meal “tea”, while the upper classes called their midday meal “lunch” and referred to the evening meal as “dinner”.
These days, class boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred so anybody may use either term depending on how they’ve been brought up or where they live. However, both tea and dinner essentially mean the same thing to most Brits: an evening meal.