Visual: six letters, three of which o’s, including a double-o start. One ascender in middle, one descending loop at end.
In mouth: two syllables, trochee; starts with syllabic high back rounded vowel, thus involving back of tongue plus forward rounded lips; second syllable is liquid lateral at start and velar nasal at end. Articulation moves from front (plus back) through middle to back. Fully singable.
Semantics: a kind of tea that is less fermented than standard black tea.
Etymology: Chinese wū “black” lóng “dragon”.
Collocations: oolong tea.
Overtones: oblong, too long, lulu, Wollongong, fool, loo, all along, so long.
The most beautiful tea I have ever tasted – for my taste buds, of course; your results may vary – is a milk oolong I bought from Natur’el Tea, a company based in Banff (obviously they don’t grow their own there). Milk oolong is a kind that is subjected to a sudden temperature shift during the harvest, and the result is a flavour like milk and caramel.
Most oolong is a bit more straightforward, less strong than black tea but not grassy and pale like green tea. It’s a tea I’ve been familiar with since sometime when I was young, though for a long time I wasn’t sure what made it different. A word like oolong sticks with you. Most words with oo stick out at least a bit, not just because of the pair of empty eyes staring at you but because of the /u/ sound, which, especially with a /l/ adjacent, can give a silly or crazy feeling – foolish, indeed woo-woo. The overtone of oblong confuses matters some, possibly causing a more technical or clinical feeling.
Imagine the difference if this tea were marketed under a Pinyin transliteration of the Chinese: wu long. The long looks like English, true, and is a word that can be valued negatively or positively but is seldom neutral. The actual pronunciation of the original is more like an English “loong,” however, which tastes as much of lagoon or lung. The wu has a srongly Chinese flavour, but one that can have a particularly powerful air, if you think of the Wu Li masters or of Wu-Tang Clan or of the Taoist principle of wu wei. The u in place of the oo tightens it up and makes it much more subject to orientalist projections. People seeking enlightenment from the east (east? China is the middle kingdom!) may like it better – certainly there is special interest in the kind of oolong called Kuan Yin (or Guanyin) after the Buddhist goddess of mercy, partly because it’s good tea, partly because it’s god tea, partly because “Oo! Chinese Buddhist tea wisdom!”
Now imagine the difference if this tea were marketed under a translation of the Chinese. Black dragon tea. Oolong tea, when you buy it from the better emporia, is already rather pricier than Tetley, Twinings, Red Rose, or Ty-Phoo. Call it black dragon and it sounds strong – stronger than ordinary black tea, which it is not. It sounds like a tea to tattoo on a big biceps. You would almost expect it to become popular among adolescent males. It sounds like kung-fu tea – and actually there is a way of making oolong (or other teas) that is called gong fu (the Pinyin way of spelling kung fu), using more leaves and steeping it several short times. You might imagine it featuring in a Tarantino movie – or a Jackie Chan one. Or as the title of a Bruce Li movie. (You might expect a similar kind of difference if rooibos tea were marketed as red bush. Which is what rooibos means. Do all those people who buy it know they’re buying something with an Afrikaans name?)
As it is, oolong is more a sort of confusing lesser-known kind of tea, a kind of tea tag-along. “Oolong? What’s that? I guess I’ll try it.” Well. I think you should.