Drinkers Make Bad Spellers

By Sam MacDonald on Sun 12th Feb 2017

Sam MacDonald

In a week when the origins of human speech were revealedthrough sounds made by East African primates, we also saw the world’s celebration of the ‘Scotch’ drink reduced to a single day. Academics from the University of Michigan claim the key to human speech lies not in vowels but in consonants. One might argue, therefore, that the globe’s preference for the word ‘Scotch’ may be related to its phonetics, rather than to its historical or cultural relevance.

As with the egg, Scotching is the act of sealing and it holds ambiguous connections to the country Scotland, its national drink and its people. While the word may do little harm to the drink, and one might even argue that instils a sense of pride, it holds little in regards to the discovery of the liquid’s origin.

Conjectures on the etymology of the word ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey’ have been a source of debate since the mid 19th century. One suggestion was the word came from the French Bay of ‘Biscay’, another that it derived from the Hindu ‘poistee’, but little ever stood up to the argument that the word was sourced from the Gaelic, ‘uisce bheath,’ or more precisely uisce. It was reduced to ‘whiskey’ or ‘whisky’ to suit the English tongue. However, in a world where ‘apellation’ is necessary to convey a sense of quality, I would ask how Dal Riada’s spirit been been ambiguously homogenised into the words ‘whisky’, ‘whiskey’ or ‘Scotch’.

Whisk(e)y has always benefited from the senses of nostalgia and aspiration it conveys and few facts ring more true than its name. Yet the modern hang-up over whether it is spelt with a ‘y’ or an ‘ey’ was of little consequence to past marketers, as the accompanying images illustrate. The interchange between spellings was commonplace, but whether that was the result of deliberation or inebriation remains a mystery.

A good friend claims the Scottish dropped the ‘e’ because vowels take up too much drinking time. However, one could also suggest that printers in the past charged by the character, so dropping the ‘e’ may have lowered costs in the long run.

The deference in talking openly about whisk(e)y is perhaps illustrated in this poem about an Armagh public house by this John Quinn poem:

‘And if you want a good strong drink

Call in with Johnny bell

You’ll get it in purity

Its taste I know full well’

Yet there is no evidence to support the claim that Scotch and Irish diverged as separate drinks with a long pedigree. Even references to the spirit remain sparse and, possibly to deceive or confuse any excise man within earshot, terms like ‘the auld crathur’ and the ‘hard stuff’ were used with a ‘wink and a nod’ when referring to the drink. So we had 1,500 years of distillation with little in the way of legal detection along the way. Few could argue with the results.

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