meaning and origin of ‘teetotum’

The word teetotum, which dates back to the 18th century, denotes a small four-sided disk or die having an initial letter inscribed on each of its sides, and a spindle passing down through it by which it could be twirled or spun with the fingers like a small top, the letter which lay uppermost, when it fell, deciding the fortune of the player.

The word was formed by prefixing to Latin totum, meaning the whole (stake), its initial T, which stood for it on one of the four sides of the toy, itself in earlier use called simply a totum and apparently first evoked, figuratively, by the Scottish poet and courtier William Dunbar (1460?-1530?) in To the King (Exces of thocht dois me mischeif):

He playis with totum and I with nychell [= with nothing].

The letters were originally the initials of the following Latin words: A for aufer, take away, D for depone, put down, N for nihil, nothing, and T for totum.

Subsequently they were the initials of English words, as the English engraver, artist, antiquary and writer Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) explained in The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801):

The usage of the tee-totum may be considered as a kind of petty gambling, it being marked with a certain number of letters: and part of the stake is taken up, or an additional part put down, according as those letters lie uppermost. […] When I was a boy the tee-totum had only four sides, each of them marked with a letter; a T for take all; an H for half, that is of the stake; an N for nothing; and a P for put down, that is, a stake equal to that you put down at first. Toys of this kind are now made with many sides and letters.




The word for teetotum is toton, from the pronunciation of Latin totum, which was the earlier form, first attested in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave:

Totum. A kind of game with a whirlebone.

The form recorded in the first edition (1694) of the Ditionnaire de l’Académie française was totum, but it was specified that it was pronounced toton. Since the fourth edition (1762) of this dictionary, the recorded form has been toton.

According to the Dictionnaire de la langue française (1872), by the French lexicographer Émile Littré (1801-81), in the French toton, the letters are A for Latin accipe, take, D for Latin da, give, R for French rien, nothing, and T for Latin totum.

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