What is a Teetotaler?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A person who completely abstains from alcoholic beverages may be called a teetotaler, a description which has surprisingly little to do with the non-alcoholic beverage known as tea. The word actually comes from a relatively obscure grammatical practice known as reduplication. By duplicating the first letter, the speaker gives additional emphasis to the entire word. Before it was applied to fervent non-imbibers, the term "T-total" was already in common use as a synonym for complete or absolute. A teetotaler, therefore, would be a person who has completely or absolutely sworn off the consumption of alcohol.

A teetotaler is someone who does not drink alcohol in any form.
A teetotaler is someone who does not drink alcohol in any form.

It is believed the word became popular during British temperance meetings held in the 1830s. A teetotaler may never have taken a single sip of alcohol in his or her entire life, as opposed to a reformed alcoholic or social imbiber. He or she may cite religious or social convictions as the basis for his or her abstinence, or else he or she may have witnessed the effects of alcohol on relatives at an early age. A child of an active alcoholic may choose to never touch alcohol in order to break the cycle or to discourage their own children from picking up the destructive habit.

A person might have many reasons for abstaining from alcohol.
A person might have many reasons for abstaining from alcohol.

The temperance movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries have largely faded into history, but the underlying issue of controlling the flow of alcohol into a city or county is still alive. The decision to allow alcohol sales is often left to voters in a referendum, and it is not unusual for local church leaders and social organizations to unite in solidarity against alcohol sales.

When out with friends, a teetotaler may serve as the designated driver.
When out with friends, a teetotaler may serve as the designated driver.

A modern teetotaler may or may not have strong opinions about other people's right to consume alcohol. The decision to not drink is generally a personal one, based on one's own moral code. While some may view such a person as someone afraid to take risks or join the popular crowd, others may see him or her as someone capable of taking a strong position on an issue and not compromising due to peer pressure.

Some teetotalers formerly drank to excess.
Some teetotalers formerly drank to excess.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I don't drink because I take medications that don't mix, but the part that drives me nuts is the reaction that non-drinkers get when explaining to an imbiber. It goes something like this:

"What are you drinking?"

"Club soda"

"What? No whiskey, gin? Not even Chardonnay?"

"No, I'm good, thanks"

"Why? Are you Mormon? Are you a recovering alkie?"

(By now, I'm completely tired of discussing it.) "No, it doesn't mix with my medicine."

(Person looks me over to see it I appear ill)

"Not even one? How about Champagne? Wine cooler?"

The badgering goes on and on, until they decided that I'm no fun, and therefore teaming with the alcohol police.

I'm thinking of ordering a drink, then walking around holding it all night. Maybe I could pour it on the floor when no one's looking.

What's up with this? I'm not trying to get anyone to stop drinking. It's just that I can't. How is me staying alive so offensive?


@lighth0se33 – Generally, a glass of red wine a day probably does good things for your health. However, if you have a health condition like a kidney disease, it can be detrimental.

I used to drink a little until I found out I had polycystic kidney disease. I became a teetotaler after that, because I wanted to do everything I could to prolong my kidney function.

I cut way down on caffeine and totally cut out alcohol. I also stopped eating so much salt and protein.

I feel better than I ever have. I know that becoming a teetotaler is only a part of the reason, but if I didn't stop drinking, I could have destroyed my kidneys in just a few years.


I know several people who are teetotalers because of their faith. They believe that a sober mind is needed in order to keep in tune with God and what he wants them to do.

They know that if they drink alcohol, they will lose their inhibitions to a degree, even if they only have a little. A person who isn't used to drinking at all will really feel the effects of just a little alcohol.

They feel they need to maintain control over their actions, and I don't think this is a bad thing. It's no secret that alcohol makes a person do things he normally wouldn't.


I have friends who are teetotalers, but I drink a glass of red wine every night for my health. I think this might just make me healthier than my friends, though they wouldn't agree with this.


I had the teetotaler meaning all wrong. I really thought it meant the person only drank tea!

I have heard this term used in the South a lot when I visited relatives. Since they drink a lot of sweet tea down there, I just assumed that a teetotaler drank nothing else!


@anon89532: This is not the correct analogy. If a study showed a correlation between driving fast cars and decreased probability of dying in a car wreck and controlled for driver experience, age, gender, income, and location, then there would indeed be something interesting going on.


Why does reading the definition of a word require casting moral judgment on random theoretical persons?


I call anyone who completely abstains from drinking alcoholic beverages a very lame person!


People who drive fast cars but are always careful to observe traffic laws are less likely to die in a car wreck but still that doesn't mean some people shouldn't drive fast cars.


People who drink a little (up to 2 drinks for men and 1 drink for women) have less coronary disease than do teetotalers. Alcoholism has a definite hereditary element to it in that the children of alcoholic parent (or parents) are more likely to become problem drinkers (those for whom the drinking cause problems with work, health or marriage) than teetotalers even if raised by non-alcoholic adoptive parents. So children of alcoholics should be aware of the increased risk to them.

Donald W. Bales, M.D. retired internist


I call anyone who completely abstains from drinking alcoholic beverages A Very Wise Person!

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