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Why are those who don’t drink referred to as teetotalers?

Some folks prefer wine or the occasional beer to whisky or other harsh liquors. Others prefer hard liquor, while others prefer lager. None of these people drink alcohol. A teetotaler is someone who does not consume any alcoholic beverages. Where did this strange word come from, and how did it come to be ascribed to those who abstain completely from alcohol?

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Although “to teetotal” (t total, t-total) simply implies “to never drink,” Teetotaler originally signified something more specific. Most temperance societies did not see anything wrong with wine, beer, or cider during the start of the temperance movement. In fact, they welcomed them. Distilled spirituous liquors were seen as the true evil. Temperance once meant abstaining from harsh liquors. This was considered as a reasonable answer to the drinking problem.

Later, opinions shifted, and wine, beer, and cider were considered as equally as bad as spirits. As a result, the temperance movement began to advocate for complete abstention from all alcoholic beverages. To be teetotal was to abstain from both hard liquor and wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages. You could still drink in moderation and avoid spirits, but you were urged to be a teetotaler. So a teetotaler isn’t so much someone who “doesn’t drink” as someone who “doesn’t drink distilled spirits, wine, beer, or anything else.” “Practice temperance without becoming a teetotaler,” you could say.

Origin of the Teetotaler

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the term teetotal. Those who teetotal sincerely believe it, therefore a prevalent hypothesis is that the “tee” is merely put on the beginning of the term total to emphasise it. TEETOTAL abstinence, not just abstinence! If this was simply a repetition of noises for emphasis, it may not have been limited to alcohol abstinence. It may have been a catch-all phrase for anything done “completely.” If this isn’t the case, where did the term come from? There are various common origin stories, which I shall discuss below, along with some speculation about their authenticity. I make no claims to know the precise origin of the word, and one or more of these stories may be true.

Richard “Dicky” Turner’s Story

An epitaph lends validity to one of the most well-known origin legends. “Beneath this stone are laid the remains of Richard Turner, author of the name ‘teetotal’ as applied to abstention from all alcoholic liquors, who departed this world on the 27th day of October 1846, aged 56 years,” is written on a tombstone near Preston, Lancashire, England.

That is a strange and lengthy epitaph, and the fact that someone went to the trouble of engraving it on a tombstone may appear 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 truly believed it doesn’t mean that he or she had unassailable evidence for it.

It is said that in 1832 or 1833, Richard “Dicky” Turner wanted to stop drinking and went to a temperance meeting. He was so sincere that he addressed the membership and announced that all sorts of alcohol should be avoided at all costs, in what he referred to as “teetotal abstinence,” and that “nothing but the teetotal promise will suffice.”

Dicky did he stutter?

It is frequently said that he added the “tee” at the beginning for the same reason as explained above, to emphasise the word. It’s also implied that he stuttered. Perhaps he was inebriated when he declared his t-t-total abstinence. Another allegation is that Turner did not coin the term, but rather that it was an old term from the Lancashire dialect.

Was he a regular stutterer if he stuttered? Some sources say he doesn’t stammer on a daily basis, while others term him a stutter. Did they presume he stammered because they believed the story and him stammering fit? Or did they have evidence to back up their claim?

According to P.T. Winskill’s The Temperance Movement and its Workers: Volume I, Richard Turner was undoubtedly intoxicated when he went into St. Peter’s school-room where a temperance meeting was taking place. His objective had been to have some fun, but he was eventually persuaded to sign a total abstinence pledge.

Turner is not said to have invented the term in this speech. But was he utilising a term he had already coined? The fact that Turner mentions signing the “teetotal pledge” rather than the “total pledge” implies that it was a more or less acceptable method of defining the commitment, and using the word may contradict the assumption that he developed the term as a result of an unintentional stutter.

Mr. Livesey, who knew Tuner well, told Winskill that Tuner did not stammer and that those who believed he did were misinformed. Turner “was never at a loss for a term; if a suitable one was not at his tongue end, he coined a new one,” according to Livesey, who seems to indicate that Turner invented the word on purpose.

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According to Dr. F. R. Lees, Turner did not originate the word, but only applied it. According to Lees, who is a source of the “archaic usage” assertion, Turner was employing a term that had been in use in Ireland and Lancashire for a hundred years and could be found in English literature long before Turner used it. Lees provided several examples of its application in literature. Other contemporaries agreed that teetotal was a long-established Lancashire phrase.


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