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The word Scotch has several meanings, but it should never be used as an adjective to refer to a person or object from Scotland. The only exception is that the word is acceptable as part of certain compound names, such as Scotch whisky, Scotch mist or Scotch broth.

Words such as Scotchman or Scotchwoman are obsolete and frowned upon by people from Scotland. The correct words to use are Scottish or Scots. It would be wrong, for example, to say “The Scotch weather is frequently atrocious” but it would be quite correct to say “The Scottish weather is frequently atrocious”. Similarly, the Scottish newspaper is The Scotsman, not The “Scotchman”.

The word Scotch on its own is (as well as being a registered trade name) often used as a shortened form of “Scotch whisky”. Therefore, it is just about permissible to say “Scotch man”, as in “I’m a Scotch man, myself”, but that would mean someone who enjoys or prefers to drink Scotch whisky rather than someone from Scotland.

Footnote : “Whisky” and “whiskey” are often used interchangeably, but the two spellings identify the origin of the spirit. In the UK, “whisky” means the drink from Scotland, whereas “whiskey” is used when the source is Ireland. More widely, “whisky” is also used when referring to the Canadian and Japanese drinks and “whiskey” is generally used to refer to the drink when it is from the USA.

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6 thoughts on “Scotch”

  1. So, how would I refer to a cook that used a wire whisk for all the tasks in the kitchen, from mixing ingredients to washing dishes, to scraping pans and chastising interlopers? I would think of such a person as being a bit “whisky”, and not be referring to beverage of any sort. Not even the fruit smoothie that might have been rendered less than palatable, by being over-stirred with a whisk.

    Thankfully I live in America, so using the term “whisky” to refer to users and uses of a wire whisk won’t get me in trouble with those entranced by distilled liquors. I would just have to watch myself if I were to travel to the UK.

  2. While the two spellings of whiskey often identify the origin of the spirit, as you state in your footnote, this is by no means always the case, nor does it necessarily hold in the world of whiskey. As you undoubtedly are aware there are at least five popular brands of whisky made and sold in the USA which use the whisky rather than the whiskey spelling on their labels.

    In Canada, we now seem to have settled on the no-e spelling but I can assure you this was not always the case. At least into the 1960’s and probably much more recently than that we used both spellings on our labels. We still do, from time to time, and we still use both spellings regularly in the press. If you look at Charles MacLean’s World Whisky, published in Oct 2009 you can find a picture of Hirsch Canadian Whiskey on page 277. It’s made in Canada.

    In Ireland, both spellings were common on whisky labels right up into the 1970’s and the move to a single spelling was based more on the fact that all but one Irish distillery went out of business so a single spelling was defaulted to rather than chosen.

    Here is an article I published a couple of years ago on the maltmaniacs web-site about the confusion caused by those who try to give the spelling of whisky more meaning than it has to those who make it.

    The take-home message? Although there are geographical tendencies, either spelling is correct in any country (or more precisely neither spelling is incorrect in any country).

  3. I think it was James Joyce who informed me that whiskey comes from the Gaelic “usquebaugh” which means “water of life”. Your column reminded me of that and also that “usquebaugh” was the Gaelic translation of “aqua vitae”, which was the Latin way of saying water of life. Both meant distilled spirits. Wandering through the Internet, I found that the French had a word for it, too. Well, three words: eau de vie. This, for me, was where the search became interesting. I came across many references to another French phrase supposedly meaning distilled spirits. It was cau de vie. I had never heard of that, so I Googled it with quotes around the words to find exact matches. 15,200 hits. I am no language expert, but I don’t think there really is a phrase “cau de vie”. Looking through the articles which did contain cau de vie, I found many with exactly the same context and wording, as if they were all quoting the same source. Looking further I think I could have found that original “error”. It was an article from the New York Times dated September 20, 1854, titled “The British in France”. The error seems to have resulted from the use of OCR (optical character recognition) to translate the scanned copy into ascii characters. Eau de vie became cau de vie and 15,000 people went along with it. The danger of copy and paste. And the extent to which an error can propagate in the clicks of an undiscerning computer user.

  4. As a Scot, living in Scotland, I’m really pleased to see your post on this subject. One of my pet hates is use of the word ‘Scotch’ to describe things that are Scottish. In general, Scots isn’t used much either, except in reference to language, e.g. The Auld Scots tongue.
    In Scotland, the word ‘Scotch’ has come to mean Scotch Whisky and the Scottish Government has recently enacted some controls around the use of the word in reference to whisky.
    The only other use of ‘scotch’, this time with a small ‘s’ is in the context of putting an end to something, e.g. scotching a rumour.

  5. As an afterthought to cmdweb, English people and Americans will often ask for a (glass of) Scotch. This is very rare amongst Scots, who will almost always ask for a (glass of) whisky.

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