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TWTS: Why "teetotaler" has nothing to do with tea

If you totally don't drink alcohol, you could call yourself a teetotaler.

A listener recently asked us about the spelling of "teetotaler." They wanted to know why the beginning is spelled "tee" and not "tea," like the drink?

"Teetotaler" is a reduplicative form from "total." In the 19th century, people started to say "teetotally" as a way of emphasizing "totally." It's similar to saying something like, "You're in trouble with a capital 'T'."

To understand the connection to alcohol, we have to go back to 1830s Britain, when the Total Abstinence Society formed. The members of this group had chosen not to drink alcohol. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first use of "teetotaler" in 1833, not long after the society was established. A man named Richard "Dicky" Turner gets credit for the first use.

In fact, “teetotaler” came to be known as "Dicky Turner's word." In 1833, he gave a speech advocating total abstinence from all alcohol, as opposed to abstinence only to "ardent spirits" such as brandy or whiskey. That is, teetotal abstinence.

Even Turner’s tombstone credits him with first use of the term in this manner. It says, "Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word 'teetotal' as applied to abstinence from all intoxicating liquors."

Did you notice how the inscription specifies how Turner used “teetotal”? Evidence suggests that "teetotally" was a slangy expression before Turner used it. He just applied it in the context of alcohol.

We'd like to see "teetotally" make a comeback. Maybe #teetotally could become a thing? Let us know if you've got better ideas.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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