Whilst being popular throughout the world, it turns out that tea towels are not universally referred to by that name. To refer to a cloth for drying dishes, the English, Australians and New Zealanders prefer ‘tea towel’, while Americans use ‘dish towel’.
Google Trends is a great tool where you can have a look at the popularity of a search term, and drill down to see how this is spread geographically, among other things. A quick check of Google Trends for ‘tea towel’ shows darkened areas over the UK, Australia and New Zealand, revealing them as the source of most ‘tea towel’ searches.
Above: a Google Trends map for the search term ‘tea towels’
The US and Canada do have a higher proportion for ‘tea towel’ than other parts of the world, but they only really darken up for the ‘dish towel’ search. Meanwhile, the UK, Australia and New Zealand are on a par with Botswana for ‘dish towel’ searches, i.e. not on the radar!
Another term sometimes used by Americans of Italian descent is ‘mappina’, which actually means map (apparently because maps were originally drawn on cloth!). Google trends shows this to be predominantly searched for in Italy itself.
Goes to show that you can find out a surprising amount about language from what people search the internet for! Actually, when typing into the search box, Google seems to treat dish towel the same as tea towel and so will show pretty much the same results.
We can speculate about when and why the differentiation between UK and US English came about, based on the history of the tea towel. In 18th century England, the tea towel was originally conceived as an accessory for the rich, to wrap around tea pots or food, and to clean delicate china. Dish towels, meanwhile, supposedly took off in early 20th century America when housewives cut up rough cotton animal feed sacks to reuse the material.
Perhaps if they were ‘invented’ separately in both countries this would account for the different names used?