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T is for Teetotal (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)


One 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 view of the same person, who, as someone has put it, may not have 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 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.
Now, 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 real 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’ misspelt, and teetotalers 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

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


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 11:04

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

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2015 at 15:27

      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!

  • Tasha
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 12:48

    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)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2015 at 15:28

      So go for the tea explanation!! 😉
      No, apparently, it was never T for Temperance.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 14:16

    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
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2015 at 15:34

      Learning the way words came into excistance is fascinating. And so many times, there is a story bahind it.

  • Anabel Marsh
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 14:50

    The middle explanation sounds most likely to me.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2015 at 15:36

      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.

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 15:43

    I’ve also wondered where “teetotal” came from. I vote for the stammering-because-drunk theory. 😉

  • Fee
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 20:41

    Oh I LOVE the tea explanation!

    Fee | Wee White Hoose
    Scottish Mythology and Folklore A-Z

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2015 at 06:43

      That seems to be quite popular among you guys 🙂

  • Alana
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 21:54

    Tee-totally fun. I vote for the “drunk stutter” theory.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2015 at 06:44

      Hi there, and thanks for stopping by.
      Another fan of Turner, eh? 😉

  • Susan Kane
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 23:48

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

    Over from the A to Z.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2015 at 06:45

      Cool 🙂
      Well, I’ve read many stories of people who weren’t deterred from doing whatever they intended to do, whether Prohibition allowed it or not.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 24, 2015 at 04:45

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 24, 2015 at 06:47

      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 🙂

  • Alex Hurst
    Posted April 25, 2015 at 09:54

    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!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2015 at 06:31

      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.

  • Sue Archer
    Posted May 5, 2015 at 01:15

    Hey, I support always drinking tea instead of alcohol! …mmm….tea. 🙂 Thanks for the rundown on these fun stories!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 5, 2015 at 05:47

      Ah! Ah! It looks like the ‘tea-theory’ is pretty popular 🙂

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