T is for Teetotal (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)

ROARING TWENTIESD - Teetotale - The t-totaler was born with the temperance movements, though how such peculiar word came into being is still debated

TOne would think that, during Prohibition, ‘dry’ meant ‘teetotal’. Uhm… not really.

The position of drys on the matters was often political or social (or both) and this very seldom matched the private position of the same person, who, as someone has put it, may have not been outright wet, but it was often at least moist.
There were, however, coherent individuals who were both dry and teetotal, Henry Ford being one of the most well-known. Yes, true, he then became a supporter of repeal, but he stayed a teetotal.

There has been much debate about where the word teetotal comes from. The most accredited origin tells the story of Richard “Dick” Turner, a known drunkard, who stepped into a temperance conference in Lancashire (Great Britain) in 1832. He meant to have fun at them, he ended up pledging his abstinence to alcohol forever. There and then, he declared there is no abstinence other than tee-tee-total abstinence.
969A702C-A0FA-46F3-85D2-4F524A78F497_mw1024_s_nNow, some say he say T-Total to stress the concept. Some say he stammered on the word. Some others say he stammered because he was tee-tee-totally drunk. Whatever it was, Mr Turner is often credited to be the ‘inventor’ of the word.

But there are other stories.
In the 1800s, most temperance movements didn’t see anything wrong with wine, beer or cider, the true enemy being just hard liquor. So people who signed for the cause could either pledge for moderation and so to renounce just hard liquors, or for total abstinence. Those who pledged total abstinence would place a ‘T’ after their name and that might be where the ‘t’ in teetotal comes from.

There is also another story that is so improbable I’m not even… ok, you talked me into it. I’m telling you.
Some say ‘tee’ is ‘tea’ misspelled, and teetotals were those who pledge to drink tea in place of any alcohol.

So there, now you know the pretty and the ugly of it.




Culinary Lore – What is the origin of the word teetotal?

Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Da Capo Press, New York, 1973

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

22 Comments on "T is for Teetotal (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)"

  1. I love reading your articles. And the story of how tee totallers name came to be, hilarious!

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)
    Mee Magnum recently posted…[REVIEW] Dynasty of Port WashingtonMy Profile

    • Hey Mee, I’m so happy to hear that. Knowing people enjoy reading my post is the Whole point of blogging, isn’t it? 🙂

      Honestly, I don’t know what’s the true story behind the name, but all of them are teetotal fun!

  2. Awww – I like the tee and tea explanation – it makes no sense, but it appeals to my Britishness 🙂 It’s not just T for Temperance then?
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
    Tasha recently posted…AtoZChallenge2015 – T is for ThorMy Profile

  3. I always wondered where that word came from! I like the story about the drunk guy. 🙂 Also, I never knew there was a difference between dry and T. Now I know. 🙂

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
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    Tarkabarka recently posted…T is for Thidrek of Bern (Epics from A to Z)My Profile

  4. The middle explanation sounds most likely to me.
    Anabel Marsh recently posted…Gallus Glasgow T: the TardisMy Profile

    • That’s what I thought when I read the three explanations the first time. Still, as I reaserched it, I’ve found that the first one about Dick Turner seems to be the most accepted.

  5. I’ve also wondered where “teetotal” came from. I vote for the stammering-because-drunk theory. 😉
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…Twinberry TeaMy Profile

  6. Oh I LOVE the tea explanation!

    Fee | Wee White Hoose
    Scottish Mythology and Folklore A-Z
    Fee recently posted…TriduanaMy Profile

  7. Tee-totally fun. I vote for the “drunk stutter” theory.
    Alana recently posted…Terra StudiosMy Profile

  8. My grandfather had a still. When that was destroyed, he made gin. Wicked.

    Over from the A to Z.
    Susan Kane recently posted…T is for TreeMy Profile

  9. I’d never thought about the origin of the word teetotaler. Those are some plausible-sounding explanations, though I like the misspelt “tea” version best.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Dr. Todor and Pandora Hadži-MitkovMy Profile

    • A lot of people like that explanation.
      Mhm… me, I thought at first the T after the name explanation was the more likely, but now I’m more inclined toward the Turner explanation 🙂

  10. I don’t drink… Simply no taste for it, but it’s been really interesting to see how much Prohibition was part of the 20s era! Or, maybe it’s just your specialty, since that’s what a number of this month’s posts have focused on. I’m definitely walking away with a ton more knowledge on the subject!
    Alex Hurst recently posted…V is for 自販機My Profile

    • Well, Prohibition was indeed a big part of the Twenties, though it was so in so many different and especially indirect ways. It affected the political life heavily, it touched people’s everyday life, it helped the evolution of new behaviour, it help spreading the new music – jazz – which is turn affected people’s life more.

      Yes, I focused in particular on Prohibition in these posts, but it was indeed an important aspect of American life in the Twenteis, in my opinion.

  11. Hey, I support always drinking tea instead of alcohol! …mmm….tea. 🙂 Thanks for the rundown on these fun stories!
    Sue Archer recently posted…Reflections on the A to Z Blogging ChallengeMy Profile

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