The Tea On 'What's the Tea': A Popular Slang Term for Gossip

Updated April 1, 2022
Friends having tea at sidewalk cafe
    Friends having tea at sidewalk cafe
    Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd / DigitalVision / Getty Images
    Used under Getty Images license

Just sipping a nice warm (or cold) infused tea is enough to settle your nerves and let the stress of the day melt away. So why is the world’s favorite relaxing drink now synonymous with gossip and chaos? Well, here’s the tea.

It’s Not Actually Tea

Unless you work in a tea shop or tea house, a person breathlessly asking “What’s the tea?” isn’t literally asking about tea. They’re asking about the latest gossip, or an update on old gossip, and they know you’ve got it. You can then “spill the tea” (reveal the gossip), especially if the “tea” is strong (a juicy secret; “weak tea” is an uninteresting secret).

Like the similar idiom “spill the beans” or even “let the cat out of the bag,” the phrase uses figurative language to both request more information and to describe having told a secret (“I spilled the tea.”)


The First Cup of Tea

Long before it became a meme, tea was a popular metaphor in the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly in black drag culture. Popularized by Lady Chablis in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and her autobiography Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah, the term tea (or “T”) often stands for “truth.”

Credit for its recent appearance in popular culture, however, belongs to Lipton Tea and Kermit the Frog. In a popular TV commercial, Kermit sips a cup of tea as chaos unfolds around him. He laments, “Why can’t everyone just be more tea?”

The catchphrase “be more tea” didn’t stick, but the image of Kermit sipping tea certainly did. It morphed into the popular “but that’s none of my business” meme, which describes a dramatic situation that you observe over your cup of tea but don’t get involved in, beyond a lightly judgemental retort.


When Should You Spill the Tea?

So when’s a good time to spill the tea? If you ever find yourself in these situations, get out the teabags and honey:

  • a frenemy gets into an embarrassing (and hilarious) situation

  • you find out a secret just before everyone else does and you can’t keep it in

  • you’re meeting up with friends and you’ve got some gossip about the last one to arrive

  • you’ve got dirt on a toxic employee, and revealing it will make your work environment a lot more bearable

  • new celebrity gossip just dropped and no one in your friends’ text thread is talking about it yet

  • you find out some background information on the new neighbor, and it is too good to keep to yourself

And That’s the Tea