Teetotal is used to refer to complete abstinence from alcoholic beverages. It is one of those rare words for which we have precise and definitive information about its coinage. The tee- is a reduplicative syllable that emphasizes the total; the word was first used to differentiate those who abstained from all alcohol from those who advocated temperance for hard liquor only.
Teetotal was first used in a speech at an 1833 temperance rally in Preston, England by a working man named Richard “Dicky” Turner. The word first appears in print in the April 1824 issue of the Preston Temperance Advocate in the signature to a letter:
A Lover of Sociality, and a “Tee-Total” Abstainer.
And again later in the same magazine:
He...is now a tee-total abstinence member, and is an ornament to the Society.
The adverb teetotally, however, was in use the US before, but in a general sense—not specifically related to temperance. There are also claims, but no strong evidence, that teetotally was used in Ireland as well. From James Hall’s 1832 Legends of the West:
These Mingoes...ought to be essentially, and particularly, and tee-totally obflisticated [sic] off of the face of the whole yearth [sic].
Teetotal also appears in England in the general sense by 1840. It is possible that the adverb is older in British use and influenced the temperance sense. But it is also possible that the temperance sense was coined independently from the general one.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton