This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Word To Use Today: teetotal.

What put the tee in teetotal?

I always thought that if you were abstaining from alcohol, as teetotallers do, then obviously you'd need plenty of cups of tea to keep you going. And the reason it wasn't teatotal was...well, perhaps the tee in teetotal was one of those fancy fashionable spellings designed for marketing purposes, in the way that something called Eezikleen is trying to persuade us that scrubbing our skirting boards is fashionable and fun. 

The Drunkard's Progress, a piece of teetotal propaganda by Nathaniel Currier

I was quite wrong about this - though to be fair no one is sure whence the tee in teetotal sprang. 

Was it because Richard Turner had a stammer, and in a speech at the Preston Temperance Society in 1833 declared 'I'll be reet down out-and-out t-t-total for ever and ever.' (The total standing for totally abstaining from alcohol.)

That story is set in England, but a slightly modified version of the story 'partial abstinence from intoxicating liquors would not do, they must insist on tee-tee-tee total abstinence' was current in Charleston, in America, by 1836.

It's a good story, and well worth carrying across the ocean, but I wonder if it's just too good to be true. Richard Turner would have been among sober fellow-enthusiasts at that meeting, and they surely would have been unlikely to form the name for their way of life from an unfortunate mispronunciation.

But then, perhaps there were trouble-makers present.

There are other theories about the origin of the tee. It might have come from the 1820s practice of writing a T after one's name to signify a pledge of abstinence (it was an easy sign to write even for the illiterate). Similar claims as to the significance of the letter T have been made for the files of the American temperance preacher Lyman Beecher.

What's worth remembering is that T-total had a life outside abstinence: in the 1830s T-total meant absolutely total, and not just with reference to drink. A cellar might be in T-total darkness, for instance, or a horse a T-total thoroughbred. So Richard Turner's T-total might have been an early example of this usage.

Of all the possibilities, this one rings most true to me.

Word To Use Today: teetotal. Total comes from the Latin tus, which means all.

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