the authentic origin of the word ‘teetotal’

The adjective teetotal in the sense of choosing, or characterised by, total abstinence from all alcohol seems to have first been used about September 1833 by Richard Turner, a worker from Preston, Lancashire, in a speech advocating total abstinence from intoxicating liquors, in preference to abstinence from ardent spirits only (as practised by some early temperance reformers).

Among those present on the occasion was Joseph Livesey (1794-1884), one of the “Seven men of Preston”, who had formed the first Total Abstinence Society on 22nd March 1832. The Preston Temperance Advocate, a monthly magazine started by Livesey in January 1834, shows the rapid advance of “Dicky Turner’s word” from a humorous or allusive to a fully adopted term. The issue for April 1836 even had a full-page portrait of “Dicky Turner, now celebrated as being the author of the word Tee-total”. This statement is also made on his tombstone at Preston, where he died on 27th October 1846.

In The Teetotaler’s Companion; or, A Plea for Temperance (London, 1847), Peter Burne gave the following account of Turner’s speech, perhaps learned from hearsay:

Hitherto the thorough-going principle had been known only by the diffuse, and therefore, inconvenient appellation of “total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors.” But in the month of September of the present year (1833), a new name was found for it by (the late) Richard Turner, a simple, eccentric, but honest and consistent reclaimed drunkard, who at this time had risen to the position of plasterer’s laborer, and was honored with the distinctive title of “Dicky Turner,” having before been known only as “Cockle Dick,” from his having hawked and cried that and other shell-fish through the streets for a livelihood. Being in the habit of speaking at the meetings, he is said to have made use of the following provincialisms in a phillipic against the old system: “I’ll hev nowt to do wi’ this moderation-botheration-pledge; I’ll be reet down tee-tee-total for ever and ever.” “Well done,” exclaimed the audience. “Well done, Dicky,” said Mr. Livesey, “that shall be the name of our new pledge.”

Burne thus explained the origin of the adjective teetotal:

The prefix tee had before been occasionally employed in Lancashire to express a final resolve or event; thus a thing irrecoverable was sometimes said to be “tee-totally lost”—a perfectly complete piece of work was said to be “tee-totally finished”—and a determination of relinquishment was expressed to “give up tee-totally.” Conveniently embodying the sense of the new principle, it was eagerly adopted to express it; and being a few times employed in Livesey’s Moral Reformer, soon became popularly established. The word Teetotal (like Whig and Tory) has now become part of the English language, and is a familiar term all over the world.

The facts that I have collected corroborate this origin. The adverb totally had been strengthened to tee-totally before tee-total came to refer to complete abstinence from alcohol; The Chester Chronicle (Cheshire) of 7th September 1810 published a story recounting an excursion, during which a certain

Mr. Plane said, “he differed tee-totally from the attorney in his last assertion.”

(It is probable that, since tee-totally was in use in England at that time, tee-total was, as well.)

And, in his story Barny O’Reirdon, the Navigator, published in The Dublin Observer of 16th February 1833, the Irish composer, painter and author Samuel Lover (1797-1868) wrote:

“You’re a good sayman for that same, says he, an’ it would be right at any other time than this present, says he, but it’s onpossible now, tee-totally, on account o’ the war, says he.”

In the same manner, tee-total, an emphasised form of total, had been in use in the general sense of absolutecomplete, in Ireland at least, before it came to be specifically applied to abstinence from all alcohol; the following is from Another Non-Descript, published in Saunders’s News-Letter, and Daily Advertiser (Dublin) of 17th September 1832:

On Saturday evening, (the 8th instant) whilst returning from Howth, along the shore, our attention was attracted to a rough-looking sportsman, half poacher, half fisherman, who had winged a sea bird, and was busily pursuing it as it fluttered and limped along the strand, near old Kilbarrack Church. It caught it at last, (as Daft Jamie Anderson caught the crow, “by speed of foot,”) and spent full ten minutes examining it on the spot ere we came up. It appeared to us to be a Godwit, (Scolopax Japonica) but the sportman [sic] declared, with a very self-satisfied air, that it was a Nondescript! […] We enquired how he knew so well that this bird merited the title? “O by Gor!” said the fellow “I know every bird that comes to the coast, and this is a tee-total stranger!”

It is therefore likely that Richard Turner only used a word already colloquially current in the general sense of absolutecomplete.




The following, about the origin of teetotal, is from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1891), an American encyclopaedic dictionary edited by William Dwight Whitney (1827-94):

There are two accounts of the origin of this word. (a) The Reverend Joel Jewell (according to various accounts, confirmed by a letter from him to the editor of this dictionary), secretary of a temperance society formed at Hector, New York, in 1818, on the basis of a pledge to abstain from distilled spirits but not from fermented liquors, introduced in January, 1827, a pledge binding the signers to abstinence from all intoxicants. The two classes of signers were distinguished as those who took the “old pledge,” and had “O.P.” placed before their names, and those who took the “new” or “total pledge” (“T.”); the frequent explanation given of these letters made “T.―total” familiar. (b) Richard Turner, an artisan of Preston, in Lancashire, England, is said, in advocating the principle of temperance, about 1833, to have maintained that “nothing but te-te-total will do”; while a variation of this account makes the artisan a stutterer. Both accounts appear to be correct, and the word may have originated independently in the two countries.

But no contemporary evidence has been found to support the theory that teetotal as used in the USA is an independent word. On the contrary, all evidence shows that the total abstinence movement in the USA (and with it the use of teetotal) followed, and was greatly influenced by, the Preston movement. The following extract from the Journal of the American Temperance Union of June 1840 shows that teetotal was originally a British term; on his return from the reception given by the various Temperance Societies of Great Britain to the delegation of the American Temperance Union, the Reverend William Patton declared:

Total abstinence from all intoxicating drinks, is a principle of English manufacture. We sent over the old ardent spirit pledge; but after all, it did not touch the English beer, and good old brown stout, wine, nor the delicate cordials for the ladies. All these were untouched, and the graves of the drunkards were filling up as fast as ever; and those they had drawn a little away from the gin palaces, they soon found were drunkards still—for such found they could keep the old pledge, and go to bed drunk every night. So they adopted what they called the ‘te-total’ pledge—(though I don’t like the name.) They sent that back again to us; and it was really gratifying to them to find that there was a Total Abstinence Society in America.

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