Where Does the Word ‘Teetotaler’ Come From? And More Questions From Our Readers

You’ve got questions, we’ve got experts

The word "teetotaler" dates back to the temperance movement that preceded Prohibition. (Illustration by Salini Perera; Photo reference: U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Q: Where does the word “teetotaler” come from?

— Anonymous | Washington, D.C.

It dates back to the 1820s and 1830s when alcohol consumption in the United States dramatically increased. Back then, drinking was an all-or-nothing habit, explains Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. The “tee” in “teetotaler” likely refers to temperance activists who were totally opposed to alcohol with “a capital T” (or “tee”). Similar to the way people used the label of capital-R Republicans or W-Whigs, being a T-Totaler was a distinct identity. It was only after Prohibition ended that drinking in moderation became more popular and the label fell out of fashion.

Q: How did ladybugs get their names?

— Novella Whaley | Redondo Beach, California

Ladybugs, also called ladybirds and, more accurately, lady beetles, get their name from the Christian tradition of calling the Virgin Mary “Our Lady,” says Floyd Shockley, collections manager at the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Entomology. The red, seven-spotted Coccinella septempunctata became linked to her because, in early Christian paintings, Mary was often depicted wearing a red cloak. The insect’s spots were said to symbolize the seven sorrows and seven joys Mary experienced. Common throughout Europe, ladybugs are known by other names that pay tribute to the mother of Jesus: In Germany, they’re called Marienkäfer (Maria’s beetle) and in Spain, they’re mariquita (little Maria).

Q: Do other animals besides humans experience morning sickness while pregnant?

— Valerie Van Kooten | Pella, Iowa

They don’t seem to throw up, at least. Beyond that, it’s hard to discern their subjective experience, since there’s no way to ask. There can be changes in animals’ behaviors and appetites during pregnancy, though. Becky Malinsky, assistant curator of primates at the National Zoo, saw this firsthand when Calaya, one of the Zoo’s gorillas, was pregnant last year. Calaya avoided certain foods, wasn’t interested in eating in the morning and slept later than usual.

Q: In film footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963, who are the men in the white pill-shaped hats standing around and behind him?

— Roland A. Nicholson | Somerset, New Jersey

They were among the 2,000 marshals recruited by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin to volunteer at the March on Washington. The Kennedy administration worried the march might turn violent, so District Police, the National Guard and the Army had nearly 20,000 law enforcement officers and troops standing by. The organizers wanted to have their own peacekeepers and called on black police officers and firefighters from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Trained in Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence tactics, which Rustin had studied in India, and wearing replicas of Gandhi’s signature cap, the marshals were stationed along the Mall to protect attendees. But they were barely needed, explains William Pretzer, senior curator of history at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The march was completely peaceful.

It’s your turn to Ask Smithsonian.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus