Monday, December 19, 2011

Today's Word: teetotaler

In a graveyard at St. Peter's in Preston, Lancashire, England, is a tombstone that bears this inscription:
Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word Teetotal as applied to abstinence from all intoxicating liquors, who departed this life on the 27th day of October, 1846, aged 56 years.
Some people wrongly believe that a person who advocates complete abstinence from all intoxicating beverages is a tea-totaler, offering the mistaken explanations that tea-totalers drink nothing stronger than tea or that people are encouraged to drink tea instead of alcohol.

But the word is actually teetotaler.

The word teetotal apparently existed before it was used specifically for alcoholic humbuggery. The first three letters are a reduplication of the first letter of total — T-total, or total-total — meaning absolutely everything. It's an intentional redundancy along the lines of "last and final," "each and every," and "absolutely positively."

English: Bottle of Sambuca Franciacorta liquor
Have yourself a groggy little Christmas
Image via Wikipedia
The unfortunately named Dick Turner used the word in a speech to a temperance society in Preston, arguing "[n]o half-way measures here. Nothing but the tee-tee total will do."* The founder of the group, Joseph Livesey, liked the word, and immediately proposed that it become the name of their society. The others agreed, and the men of the temperance society of Preston came to be known as teetotalers.

It's believed Turner gave this speech in September of 1833, months before the ordeal of Christmas was on his mind. Had he given the speech on, say, December 19 — in the midst of Christmas shopping and planning for extended visits with in-laws — he might not have been so gung-ho about total abstinence.

* From
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