Teetotaler: Why are People Who Don't Drink Called This?

Posted on 13 Nov 2016 18:24

Originally published on January 20 2015.

Teetotaler Meaning

Some people don't drink whiskey or other hard liquors but enjoy wine or the occasional beer. Others stick to the hard stuff, and others only like beer. None of these people are teetotalers. A teetotaler is someone who refuses to imbibe any and all alcohol containing liquids. Where did this curious word come from and how did it come to be applied to those who totally abstained from drinking?

Although "to teetotal" (t total, t-total) simply means "to never drink," it meant something more specific when it first came to be used. At the beginning of the temperance movement, most temperance societies didn't see anything wrong with wine, beer, or cider. In fact, they embraced them. It was distilled spirituous liquors which were seen as the real evil. The idea of temperance, then, was to abstain from hard liquors. This was seen as a moderate response to the problems of alcohol.

Later, attitudes changed and wine, beer, and cider came to be seen as just as much of a problem as spirits. Therefore the temperance movement began to call for total abstinence from all alcohol containing beverages. To teetotal was to abstain from both hard liquor and wine, beer, etc. You could still practice moderation, and only cut out spirits, but you were encouraged to be a teetotaler. So, a teetotaler wasn't someone who "doesn't drink" as much as it is someone who "doesn't drink distilled spirits, or wine, or beer, or anything else." You could still "practice temperance without being a teetotaler.

Teetotaler Origin

It is hard to say what the exact origin of the word teetotal is. Those who teetotal really and truly mean it, so a common suggestion is that the "tee" is simply tacked on the beginning of the word total as a sort of emphasis. Not just abstinence but TEETOTAL abstinence! If this was simply a repeating of sounds for emphasis, then it may not have been exclusive to abstinence from alcohol. It could have been a general word to emphasize anything done "totally." If this isn't the origin, where did the word get started? There are several common origin stories, which I will report here along with some speculation as to the credibility to each one. I make no claims to knowing the exact origin of the word, and one or more of these stories may have some truth in them.

The Story of Richard "Dicky" Turner

One of the most well-known origin stories is lent authority by an epitaph. Written on a tombstone near Preston, in Lancashire, England, is "Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word 'teetotal' as applied to abstinence from all intoxicating liquors, who departed this life on the 27th day of October 1846, aged 56 years."

That is one heck of a strange and long epitaph and the fact that someone would go through the trouble of engraving it on a tombstone may seem to be very good evidence that Turner really did invent the word, but keep in mind that just because the person responsible for the epitaph really believed it, doesn't mean that he or she had unassailable evidence for it.

It is said that Richard "Dicky" Turner, around 1832 or 1833, decided to renounce his drunken ways and so attended a local temperance meeting. So sincere was, that he addressed the membership and declared that any and all types of alcohol should be absolutely avoided, in what he called "teetotal abstinence," and saying "nothing but the teetotal pledge will do."

Did Dicky Stutter?

It is sometimes claimed that he put the "tee" at the beginning for the general reason described above, as emphasis. It is also suggested that he stuttered. Perhaps he was drunk when he proclaimed his t-t-total abstinence. Still another claim is that Turner didn't invent the word, but that it was an archaic word from the Lancashire dialect.

If he stuttered, was he a regular stutterer? Some sources make no mention of him stammering on a regular basis, and some call him a stutter. Did they assume he was a stutterer because they believed the story and him being a stammerer fit? Or did they have evidence to support it?

Well, according to The Temperance Movement and its Workers: Volume I, by P.T. Winskill, Richard Turner was indeed intoxicated when he wandered into St. Peter's school-room where a temperance meeting was underway. His intention had been to have a bit of fun, but in the end, he was convinced to sign a total abstinence pledge.

The book does say that Richard "Dicky" Turner was somewhat eccentric and amused people with his odd sayings and doings and recounts one of his speeches:

I have need to speak well of the glorious cause of temperance for the good it has done for me. I was a trouble to my parents for I believe I was the worst lad that ever was born of a man. You must not expect much from me, because my education was at the ate bench…I used to cal the temperance people fools, but after attending a meeting at the Moss school I found I was the fool and they were the wise men….They invited me to come up and sign…They asked how long I would sign for. I said a fortnight, for I thought it was as long as I could keep it. I signed the moderation pledge, but that would not do. Afterward I signed the teetotal, and, bless God! I have kept it, and am strong and hearty…"

This is not the speech in which Turner is said to have coined the term. But, was he using a word he had coined before? The fact Turner mentions signing the "teetotal pledge" rather than the "total pledge" suggests that it was a more or less accepted way of describing the pledge, and using the word may not support the idea that he had coined the word by an accidental stutter.

According to Winskill, Mr. Livesey, who knew Tuner well, said that Tuner was not a stammerer and those people saying he was mistaken. Livesey seems to imply that Turner invented the word on purpose and says that he "was never at a loss for a word; if a suitable one was not at his tongue end, he coined a new one."

However, a Dr. F. R. Lees says that Turner did not coin the term, but only applied it. Lees is a source of the "archaic usage" claim and says that Turner was using a term that had been in use in Ireland and Lancashire for a hundred years, and which could be found in the literature of England long before Turner used it. Lees gave some examples of its use in literature. That teetotal was a long-established Lancashire term was backed up by other contemporaries.

"T" After Your Name

Turner spoke of "signing the pledge." Stories are also told that Temperance Societies would have people sign moderation pledges or total pledges. Those taking the total pledge would place a "T" after their name, so that they became known as T-totalers, and later, teetotalers.

Drinking Tea Instead of Booze

Another, quite silly, origin claim is that the "tee" started out as "tea" and referred to drinking tea (or other beverages) instead of alcohol. More likely, teetotal was simply a misspelling of teetotal, which caused people to believe that it had something to do with tea.

Teetotal Spread Quickly

Since the second half of the nineteenth century was the height of the temperance movement, if the word teetotal did indeed appear in literature prior to around 1830, then it would be almost certainly the case that the term was adopted by the temperance movement but had been a term in general use before that time. Whether it was an old term by the time Turner used it, we can say that it is almost beyond doubt that he did NOT invent it. Here, we can use evidence from the printed word after around 1830 to 1835.

If such a term had been coined by one man during one speech, then we could not expect to see it appearing much in print in the years directly following its coinage. It would have taken a while to catch on. Instead, the word "teetotal" or "tee-total" appears in a great many publications from 1830 onward. Indeed, as early as 1830, and probably before, temperance societies were known at "teetotal societies." What's more, the word appears in American printed publications almost as often as British publications and also appears in Irish ones. Since most of these publications were written by temperance societies, or addressed temperance, it is hard to fathom how the off-hand utterances of a guy wandering into one meeting somewhere in England saying "nothing but the teetotal pledge will do," could have led to such widespread and quite 'official' adoption of the term by the entirety of the temperance movement and all its various groups, in such a short time-span, although some etymologists of the time claimed that this was the case.

But, it is possible that Turner's story has been mistold. The idea that Turner made an impassioned speech on total abstinence after wandering into a meeting one day seems to be an invention. Instead, Turner was induced to sign the pledge and then later became a well-known temperance advocate and speaker, who probably made many impassioned speeches. He probably didn't coin the term.

Is Teetotal a Republicate Term?

Instead, it seems more likely that it was an old term of a type known as a "republicate." Republication means to repeat sounds in a word, or similar sounds, often as a means to emphasize them. Tiptop is a similar word. Turner may have used the word teetotal often, helping it to become more widespread, or it may have already been in use by the temperance movement, and Turner helped to cement it.

Why Was the Word Teetotal So Important To Temperance?

It may help to understand why the word teetotal was so important to the temperance movement, then. Temperance did not start out as a movement toward total abstinence. Instead, it was about "entire abstinence from ardent spirits." In other words, temperance began as a movement calling for abstinence from hard liquors like whiskey, rum, gin, etc. Wine, beer, and cider were often accepted and even recommended as a good substitute for hard spirits. There are even stories about wine being served at early temperance meetings! It seems that there was doubt, in some people's mind, that wine, beer, and cider contained alcohol as did spirits.

Opinions changed, and one reason for this was that it became known that non-spirituous liquors did indeed contain alcohol, only at a lesser volume. You could get drunk on any of it, and so you have to abstain from all of it. It is usually claimed that the move toward total abstinence began in England and then move to America. The pledge for temperance, before this time, was for abstaining from spirits. This became known as the "old pledge" or the "moderation pledge." Abstaining from any and all alcoholic beverages became known as the "total pledge." It is not really known exactly when, why, and where this movement first began, but most early histories do indeed seem to place the first "teetotal society" in Preston, in 1832. The Preston society did begin using a total abstinence pledge in 1832 and it did become known as the teetotal pledge.

Hectar Temperance Society

According to a publication by the Centennial Temperance Conference (CTC) of Philadelphia in 1885, "One Hundred Years of Temperance," though, there was an American society which used a total abstinence pledge as early as 1826 and used the word "Teetotal" as early as 1827.

This society was in Hector, N.Y. In September 1826, according to the CTC, the Hector society had two pledges, one on total abstinence and one on "the old plan of abstinence from distilled spirits." The CTC claims that the first used of the word teetotal, then, should be credited to the secretary of the society, Rev. Joel Jewell, who in his roll placed an "O.P." by the names of those who agreed on the old pledge, and a "T" next to the names of those who agreed on the new total abstinence pledge, until such time as every member used the total pledge. According to Jewell, "By constantly explaining the T was for Total, we were directly called the T-totalers, and this was the origin of the word five years before it was coined in England." CTC does concede that the term may have been popularized from England, though.

Hector was not the only local society to adopt a total abstinence pledge at around the same time, and state level societies soon followed. It may well be that the first total abstinence movements were in America, instead of in the U.S. And it does seem to be true that a "T" was placed after the name of total abstinence pledgers. Since T=total abstinence, a fact that would have had to be repeated over and over, it isn't hard to see how this could have become "T-total" then "T-totalers" then "teetotalers>

But that still doesn't mean that the term was not used in England and that it was not already a known word. People often invent origin tales of this sort when somewhat archaic words are used, and then a similarity is noticed, such as the "T" meaning total and total abstinence pledgers being known as teetotalers. In other words, someone, or more than one person, may have referred to them as teetotalers, using a known word, and only later was it supposed that this came about because of the "T" written on the pledge rolls. Whether this is true, or whether the word came about independently at around the same time in Both England and U.S., the evidence cannot show.

Although I have no idea whether the "T=total" origin holds any water, I do not believe that Richard Turner, as far as the evidence shows, invented the term. It probably has its earliest origin in England.

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