Saying ‘Boba’ is Better Than Saying ‘Bubble Tea’. Fight Me

The great Taiwanese blend of tea, milk and an optional bunch of tapioca pearls from the 80’s has enjoyed an increasing presence in the United States in recent years. Still, many Americans — even those of Asian descent — could not quite agree on what to call it, as well as when to use whatever name they have for it.

For starters, the division lies between drinkers in the East and West Coasts, which, for the most part, have referred to the beverage as “bubble tea” and “boba tea,” respectively. Then, it becomes a question of technical usage.

 

This week, a young man from California took to the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits to explain his side of the coin — and that boba, as a term, is “culturally significant.”

“Our boba terminology is fine. ‘Boba’ as a term is fine, and any attempt to claim otherwise is nothing more than linguistic gaslighting by elitist prescriptivists,” writes Terry, who lives in Fremont. “Consider the following statement: ‘My boba doesn’t have boba in it.’”

 

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According to Terry, the use of “boba” to describe both the drink and the optional ingredient — in this case, tapioca pearls — is acceptable. Apparently, this is called “synecdoche” in linguistics.

“For some reason, people are using ‘boba’ to describe both a whole category of drink and one of the optional ingredients in that drink. THIS IS FINE. In linguistics, synecdoche (using the term of a part to refer to the whole) is common when examining language change over time. While these two definitions are similar, there’s really no issue when used in context.”

 

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Terry goes on to defend that the statement is neither “ambiguous” nor “nonsensical,” as another word would probably be needed to replace the term.

“Do you really think that someone is noting that their pearls don’t have tea in it? If ambiguity was a major issue, another term would have naturally arisen.”

According to Terry, language is more dynamic than static, variable to how society makes use of it.

“Language is not some perfect system with rules established for the express purpose of being efficient, but a collection of changing social protocols. From phonetics to morphology to syntax, everything is affected by how common usage patterns change (consider: common usage of ‘pasta’ to refer to both the dish and the ingredient).”

 

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Apparently, a similar situation can be found in the East Coast, where most call the drink “bubble tea” or “pearl milk tea” (PMT) instead. As Quora user Jeffrey Lin wrote in 2013:

“Having ordered drinks up and down the West Coast of the U.S. and in Boston/New York, I think the only people who use the term ‘boba’ are the people in Southern California (626/SGV/Irvine/etc.).

“Most other places uses bubble tea/PMT interchangeably, with PMT being typically a subset (being pearl milk tea) but also synecdochic. PMT is also a direct translation from the Mandarin term, so it is also no surprise that (in my experience) Asian people will say PMT more than bubble tea (Furthermore, there’s some confusion as when you say bubble tea, 泡沫紅/奶茶 may be inferred by a listener, literally bubble/foam tea.).

“Geographic differences matter. I was in Portland and ordered a pearl milk tea, and got what they called ‘pearl jelly,’ which was closer to grass/aiyu jelly. 50嵐 in Taiwan has taken on a bad habit of making boba be large pearls, and 珍珠/pearls being mini pearls. Some tea shops in SoCal will look at you, confused, when you ask for a pearl milk tea.”

 

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Terry concludes his explanation arguing for the significance of “boba” in the Asian American culture — and to be extra particular, “bobaddicts” in the West Coast.

“‘Boba’ is culturally significant. It may be true that the term was not used in China or Taiwan, but Asian Americans have adopted boba as a part of their own unique culture. Within the context of Asian American culture, there is no denying the significance of ‘boba.’”

The crash course on linguistics has garnered thousands of reactions and replies, but as one can only expect, the debate continues.

Facebook users had mixed responses:

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