The Oxford English Dictionary defines “teetotaler” as: “One who abstains (especially one who pledges himself to abstain) from the use of any intoxicating liquor.”
The teetotalism movement was started in England in the early 19th century. The Preston Temperance Society was founded in 1833 by Joseph Livesey, who was to become a leader of the temperance movement and the author of The Pledge: “We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxicating quality whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine.”
Nice to have an “out.” One wonders how many people were permanently ill, thus requiring daily doses of “medicine.”
As for the origin of the word, one theory attributes it to a meeting of the Preston Temperance Society in 1833, where Richard Turner, who had a speech impediment, said in a speech, ”I’ll be reet down out-and-out t-t-total for ever and ever.” However, there is evidence that the word was used in print prior to that year, so perhaps the tale was invented by someone who wanted to spin a good yarn.
According to a publication by the Centennial Temperance Conference of Philadelphia in 1885, “One Hundred Years of Temperance,” there was an American society in Hector, NY which used a total abstinence pledge as early as 1826 and used the word “Teetotal” as early as 1827.
An alternative theory is that teetotal is simply a ‘reduplication’ of the first ‘T’ in total. In England in the 1830s, when the word first entered the lexicon, it was also used in other contexts as an emphasized form of total; a comparable American English expression would be “total with a capital T” to mean “absolutely, completely.” Reduplication is the word linguists use when referring to such a repetition. I’d have said “duplication” but I’m not a linguist.
Yet another explanation is from historian Daniel Walker Howe (What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 2007) who wrote that the term was derived from the practice of American preacher and temperance advocate Lyman Beecher. He would take names at his meetings of people who pledged alcoholic temperance and noted those who pledged total abstinence with a T. Such persons became known as Teetotallers.
There are a good many reasons for choosing teetotalism, including psychological, religious, health, medical, familial, philosophical and social, or just personal preference. Many religious groups require adherents to abstain from alcohol, as well as from selling or making it.
In Buddhism, which I regard as a philosophy, not a religion, one of the five precepts is abstaining from intoxicating substances that disturb the peace and self-control of the mind. But it is formulated as a training rule to be assumed voluntarily rather than as a commandment.
My own mantra, however, is “never say never.”