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Q From Richard Mulholland, South Africa: I’m a non-drinker and often refer to myself as teetotal, or a teetotaller, but I have no idea why. Can you help?

A It’s an odd-looking word. The first part makes no obvious sense, and as a result some people have assumed that it’s a misspelling, suggesting that those who abstained from alcohol turned to tea for their refreshment, on which they became totally reliant — hence tea-total.

Where it comes from has puzzled people to the extent that other odd stories exist. It has been argued that those who signed the pledge at temperance meetings had their names marked with the letter T to indicate their total abstention. Lansing, New York, is often quoted here, where it is said to have first happened in January 1827, but there’s no contemporary evidence for it — the story only surfaced much later in the century.

However, this story is not too far from the truth of the matter. It’s accepted that the word, at least in the abstinence sense, was coined by Richard “Dicky” Turner in a speech he gave to a temperance meeting in Preston, Lancashire, in September 1833. Turner was an illiterate working man, a fish hawker, who had visited one of the early Preston temperance meetings in 1832 as a joke while half-drunk, but who came out of the meeting a convert. He was one of the founding Seven Men of Preston who signed the pledge and became a fervent advocate of that form of temperance that demanded total abstention from all forms of alcoholic drink, not just spirits as some more moderate reformers urged. There’s no formal record of what he said at the meeting — one report had it that his words were “nothing but the tee-total would do” but it is also claimed that he said in his strong local accent, “I’ll be reet down out-and-out t-t-total for ever and ever”.

Here’s where it all gets a bit murky. Did Dicky Turner stutter, did he invent a new word by adding t as an intensifier to the front of total, or was he using one already known? We will probably never be entirely sure. What is certain, though, is that his word caught on in the local temperance movement, was often quoted in its journal, the Preston Temperance Advocate, giving the credit to him as inventor, and soon became a standard word in the language. Richard Turner died in 1846 and is buried in St Peter’s churchyard in Preston; he may be the only person in the world whose claim to have invented a new word is cited on his tombstone.

What confuses the issue is that a related word, teetotally, already existed. That certainly did use an extra t at the front to emphasise what followed, so the first form would have been t-totally. It’s first recorded in North America in 1832, the year before Dicky Turner’s speech, and is common there throughout the following decades. The sense, though, is “completely; utterly”, with no link to alcohol. The Nova Scotian writer Thomas Chandler Haliburton put it into his book The Clockmaker of 1836: “I hope I may be tee-totally ruinated, if I’d take eight hundred dollars for him”. There’s a strong suspicion that this was an Irish dialect form that had been exported to North America some time earlier, since it also appears in British writing at the same period and with the same sense, and there is anecdotal evidence that it was known in Ireland much earlier. It appears, for example, in a story by Thomas de Quincey in 1839: “An ugly little parenthesis between two still uglier clauses of a teetotally ugly sentence”.

However, no evidence has been put forward that teetotally was known at the time in the Lancashire dialect. If they were, Dicky Turner would hardly have been given the credit for teetotal that he received from Preston people during his lifetime. He does seem to have created the word anew.

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Page created 19 Jul 2003