Boba, Bubble, or Pearl?

Boba Tea, Bubble Tea, or Pearl Tea? Which is it?

It's boba.

Don't argue.

You're wrong.

Google doesn't lie:

Google Trends graph of boba tea, bubble tea, and pearl tea.

Ugh, fine... it seems "bubble tea" was popularized over "boba tea" in the United States, for most Americans, for most of Google's existence as a search engine.


Even as "boba tea" has—rightfully—overtaken "bubble tea" in recent years, it must also be acknowledged that all-mighty, all-authoritative Wikipedia's entry for the delicious drink is also "bubble tea". 

Screenshot of the "bubble tea" entry on Wikipedia with a FFFUUU rage face.

That annoys us...

Or at least those of us cultured enough to know the delicious drink originated as "boba milk tea" (æłąéœžć„¶èŒ¶ bƍbĂ  nǎichĂĄ) in the 1980s in Taiwan... without learning of that through Wikipedia, or the collective knowledge of the world aggregated in Google search results.

It really annoys... some of us.

Our current team is small, but multiculturally diverse, and that includes a couple Asian-Americans of Taiwanese extraction who are awfully proud of boba, in most—if not all—of its forms, and lay claim to the treat with zealous jealousy, including what it should be called. 

It's boba.

The anecdotal, apocryphal history goes that boba (æłąéœž bƍbĂ ) literally means "big breasts", representing the tapioca balls originally mixed into milk tea.

In other words, "big breast milk tea". 

Two photos of ethnic Asian women with cups of boba milk tea placed between their breasts.

That's powerful stuff right there.

It was a clever, catchy, viral name, long before the idea of "going viral" became popularized by the internet social media age that Gen Z takes for granted. 

Yeah, it's a little uncouth or risqué... but it's still awesome.

A brief, anecdotal history of boba in America...

While immigrant Taiwanese eateries and cafés had brought boba to American shores earlier, it was around the turn of the millennium that boba shop chains started appearing, first in Asian-American majority communities before spreading geographically outward.

For the millennials among us, you might remember brands like Tapioca Express, Lollicup, or Quickly... with varying levels of nostalgia to contempt.  

Asian-American millennials began introducing—and subjugating—their non-ethnic Asian friends—and enemies—to boba, helping them develop the muscle memory to successfully puncture their plastic sealed cups of boba with fat boba straws, and castigating them for deriving more delight in shooting boba out of their straws as spitballs instead of gleefully savoring them for the precious treasures they are.

Behold, the faces of such disrespect:

YouTube video cover photo of a man shooting boba as spitballs.


@lavieenliarose VOLUME UP 😂 shooting boba out of a straw trend #boba #straw #trends #lol #atl #fyp #foryyou ♬ original sound - RosĂ©

Such microaggressions.

Localizing "boba" into "bubble" is certainly inspired. It's got alliteration; it's got metaphor; it captures the shape of the happy, bouncy, chewy little treats and sounds like the original Chinese-language name. It took a romanization unfamiliar to most English speakers... and made it both cute and easy-to-understand.

"Pearl tea" is another—even Orientalist—localization of boba. If "boba" was crass, "pearl" was kinda classy. If "bubble" was fun, "pearl" was premium. The Chinese equivalent is çç ć„¶èŒ¶ zhēnzhĆ« nǎichĂĄ, because plenty of Chinese-speaking people thought "boba" was too politically incorrect as well. 

But it's boba, dammit.

A comparison of what people call boba across America...

As interesting as the history of the name is, what may be more interesting is how Americans in different parts of the country tend towards different names for the same delicious beverage: 

Google Trends geographic comparison for "boba tea", "bubble tea", and "pearl tea".

Also anecdotally, we always thought "boba" was dominant on the West Coast while "bubble" dominated the East Coast.

Obviously because they're further away from boba's land of origin.

Boba-sayers usually knew of "bubble" while bubble-sayers often never heard of "boba". 

Evidence of how the other side of the country was that much more removed from the source of truth.

For the pro-boba Californians in our team, the above Google Trends geographic comparison is actually a bit surprising. We didn't know the Northwest was in the pro-bubble camp. We can forgive the Northeasters, but clearly we failed somewhere in losing the Northwest.

That must change.

Popularity of "boba tea" in the United States...

So let's take a cursory look at how the different names of boba, bubble, and pearl occupy the United States:  

Google Trends geographic breakdown for "boba tea".

Anyone know why New Mexico of all states seems to be the most die-hard of boba-sayers?

As irksome as it is that California is not definitively the stronghold of Team Boba on this Google Trends map of search keyword popularity, we'll allow it for now. Diving deeper into the specific history of searches in California...

Google Trends search interest for "boba", "bubble", and "pearl" in California.

...we can see that "boba" more or less won the battle against "bubble" back in 2010.


And for all of the socio-political acrimony between California and Texas and Florida, we can still hold hands in solidarity over the greater popularity of "boba" over "bubble". 

Popularity of "bubble tea" in the United States...

Google Trends geographic breakdown for "bubble tea".

Californians have a long rivalry with New Yorkers across just about everything, so we always thought the New Yorkers were behind the popularization of "bubble" over "boba", or the polarization of "bubble" on the East versus "boba" on the West.

So we're a little taken aback by this map showing Washington in the Team Bubble camp. There can only be two explanations: 1) they've been infiltrated by New Yorkers, or 2) they've always been accomplices, infecting Oregon to the south and encroaching upon the borders of California.

But there's hope:

Google Trends search interest for "boba", "bubble", and "pearl" in Washington.

"Bubble" has dominated Washington state Google searches historically, but "boba" has been making significant gains in recent years. It's only a matter of time before Washington falls and becomes a "boba" state. 

Oregon is clearly a battleground state, and it's almost there:

Google Trends search interest for "boba", "bubble", and "pearl" in Oregon.

Go Team Boba.

Popularity of "pearl tea" in the United States...

Google Trends geographic breakdown for "pearl tea".

Meanwhile, "pearl" is a distant third behind "bubble" and "boba", enough to be categorically dismissed. Still, it's a bit interesting to see its relative popularity in Oregon and—what is that—Iowa?

Opening shots in the campaign to keep boba "boba"...

Who knows what happened in 2020 for Americans to begin searching for "boba" more than "bubble" or "pearl"? 

Should these delicious beverages be called "boba" or "bubble"? Is it originalist and silly to cling to "boba"? Should we let the more native English "bubble" take over?

"Boba" may be turning the tides and winning. Here's the Google search trends for the past 12 months:

Google Trends search interest for "boba", "bubble", and "pearl" tea over the past 12 months in the United States.

And the geographic comparison for the past 12 months:

Google Trends search interest for "boba", "bubble", and "pearl" tea over the past 12 months in the United States by state geography.

That's a very different picture from before, so while "bubble" has been more popular overall since 2004, "boba" may be on the cusp of becoming the preferred name for the yummy drink we all love. 

Who is a Wikipedia editor?

We're clearly Team Boba, and maybe we're biased as a result. We just know we can't rest on our laurels. We can't take our recent gains across America for granted. 

So until the great state Washington turns blue and is safely a "boba" state, we're going to double all orders from Washington state customers for free.

Any objections to that? Use the comments below.

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