E-pistle 2008/10 – Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

By Davin de Kergommeaux, Canada

“Welcome to another edition of Straight Whiskey Radio and with today’s insight, here’s H.W. Fowler:”

“The words whiskey and whisky – is there a difference?  Apparently, to many, yes. To some, whiskey is a term that should only be used to describe brown, grain-based, distilled beverages produced by those in rebellion to Scotland’s plan of malt-driven domination of all mankind.  To others, “whisky”-making men and women are those who have a preference and attraction toward the traditional potation and are non-political, while “whiskey” makers are the militant political ones flaunting their rift with the Auld Country whilst turning their own country upside down with their linguistically jingoist agenda.  Frankly, whatever term one uses, this writer’s view is quite clear.  Pedantry about foreign spellings is a compulsion of the overbearing and when acted upon becomes sinfully arrogant behaviour The Ord calls an abomination with severe, (but divine?), consequences.  The great news is through intensive therapy, and a washback load of humility, recovery is completely possible. More information on today’s broadcast call 800 832-3623 or visit straightwhiskyradio.org.”

There has been much discussion of late on some American whisky websites about how to spell whisk(e)y. I thought whisky anoraks concerned themselves with whisky itself, while language anoraks argued over spellings.  Not so, apparently, for some bloggers have taken to calling those who disagree with their home-made spelling rules, (in what to them is really a foreign language), stupid.  Hmmm, now there’s an enlightened argument.  The problem is, there are really two written languages that call themselves “English” – one in America and the other in the rest of the world.  The Chinese have two languages that sound entirely different from each other, but are written exactly the same way, so folks who can’t speak to one another can pass notes with complete confidence of comprehension, for their “spellings”, are identical.

For English though, it is just the opposite.  While most versions sound similar enough (and there are many oral versions – accents you might say) that people can talk to each other, the Americans, they who cast off the British yoke and rejected the British education system in a pre -literate era, have developed their own spellings, generally simpler than those still used in England (where English comes from) and the rest of the British Commonwealth (e.g. Scotland).

Thus Americans and Scots spell many words differently when referring to exactly the same thing. Americans say “while”, for instance, whilst the Scots, like English speakers from around the world who have been educated in the British system (and Americans affecting Scottishness – you know, the type – they come home from vacation with a British accent), say “whilst”.  Americans graduate college, in the transitive sense while the rest of the English-speaking world intransitively graduate from college, except they call it university unless it really is a trade school.  And when they’re done, they speak and write, and maybe even think, differently.  So from whisky writers, we read flavor versus flavour, color vs. colour, aging vs. ageing, favorite/favourite, PLOWED/PLOUGHED, whiskey/whisky, burned/burnt, etc.

But it’s not just cyber whisky-geeks who are fascinated by phantom nuances of the variant spellings.
Professors Fritz Allhof and Marcus Adams, from Western Michigan University are editing a book called Whisk(e)y & Philosophy and have solicited contributions for a chapter called:  “What’s in a name?:  Whisky, whiskey, and cultural identity”.  So some pretty full noggins have been drawn to ponder this tempest in a mash tun.  I can only wonder how a more erudite mind will approach the subject, if it actually takes the time, that is.  Remember, the professors have the brains to outsource this discussion.

But perhaps the spelling of whisk(e)y really is a question better left to experts, those whose business is words rather than to whisk(e)y blogsters and pontificators. Professional editors carefully check the rules before committing to ink and there are reams of reference books that go beyond mere dictionaries to help them.  And because styles of English vary with geography, most books that are published globally have at least two different English editions, one using American spellings, the other using British (really international) spellings. Of course self -published books, like blogs, often lack the considerable benefit of a professional editor’s eye.

There are two editions of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss for example. This is a very influential book in the popular literature on how to use written English. The American edition differs from the international edition, as people educated in America would find the international version somewhat irritating due to the way it uses English, even though that is its subject.

Similarly, there are two English-language editions of the best whisky book currently on the market. I am talking about Michael Jackson’s Whisky, The Definitive Guide. In America it is called Whiskey, The Definitive Guide, and all references to Scotch whiskey use the American spelling NOT the Scottish. The authors are the most knowledgeable whisky writers of the day (Dave Broom did most of the Scotch section) and the spelling of whiskey in their book is correct in my view, if only because it has Michael Jackson’s name on it and was professionally edited.

In 2004, when Jackson published the fifth edition of his Malt Whisky Companion, the world’s best-selling book on malt whisky, he said: “There is a misunderstanding that there are British and American spellings of this term.  However, it is not the nationality of the writer or the country of publication that should determine the spelling.  It is the type of whisk(e)y:  thus Scottish and Canadian “whisky”, but Irish “whiskey”.  American styles, such as Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, generally favour the “e”, but some labels dissent.”  However, by 2005 Jackson had considerably softened his stance.  In the introduction to the international edition of Whisky he devotes a single sentence to spelling, saying only “However whisky is spelled, the word is of Celtic origin …”.  In the American edition, Whiskey, he says, “The word whiskey (spelled “whisky” in some countries) is of Celtic origin …”, but he (or more likely his editor, but again, this tells us who should be making these decisions) uses “whiskey” throughout.  Dorling Kindersley, who publish Jackson’s, and many other whisky books, and are among the largest publishing houses in the world, use the spelling of the country of publication.

I’ll justify my lengthy dissertation here by saying I am discussing the spelling of whisk(e)y only to illustrate my real topic which is the senselessness of there even being such a controversy among whisk(e)y nuts while so many drams remain untasted.  Generally I take it as a mark of a novice whisky writer to waste more than a line or two earnestly propounding the “correct” spellings of whisky, because it really doesn’t matter.  It just depends on where you went to school.  Spelling is an editor’s responsibility and the generally accepted practice is to use the spelling of the country of publication, whether you are publishing in English, Italian or Sudanese.  I agree with the editors of Whisky/Whiskey that Americans spell it differently. We can’t have one rule for “whisky” and another rule for every other word in the English language.  The trouble for some auto-didactic bloggers though, is that they make strong assertions before they really know what they are talking about then end up spending the rest of their blog-lives trying to defend naiive positions rather than simply admitting their statements were premature and perhaps misguided.

I think this whisky/whiskey controversy got started when one writer mentioned the two spellings in his book and those who followed were too lazy to do their own research and simply copied him. It has become such a cliché now to begin a cut-and-past whisky book with a discussion of spellings, that not to do so would almost in itself make a book noteworthy.  Certainly it would encourage you to read on in hope of finding other new thoughts.  The fact is though, you can still buy Irish whisky with the “whisky” spelling. I have a bottle of Paddy’s that I bought a few years ago just because of that spelling. It was very common for the Irish to use either spelling right up into the 1970’s, and I believe the only reason it changed to a single spelling was because the Irish distilleries were in serious recession so they merged to form a single firm. Thus, with only one distiller producing Irish whisky, you would expect a single spelling on the label. Why they chose the “e” spelling, I don’t know, but that’s not the way it was until that recently.

I have an old whiskey jug made in Glasgow (Scotland) which uses the spelling “whiskey”.  I also have an old Scotch Whiskey mug with that spelling, so in practice, though it is rare, it is not unknown for the Scottish to use the “e” spelling. America, though, is another kettle of fish because both spellings are used commonly by whisk(e)y makers there, though for Bourbon the “whiskey” spelling predominates.

If you look at the Scotch Whiskey Order you will quickly discover that the Scottish have spelled it both ways and the “legal” spelling is (or at least until very recently was) “whiskey”. Now, if you go to the most recent proposals from the Scotch Whisky Association, the “legal” spelling is about to change yet again, for in the draft “legal” documents it is now always capitalized – “Whisky”, much like “Bourbon”.  In America, however, despite the common wisdom, the “legal” spelling is still “whisky”, without the “e”.  If you look at the US Standards of Identity, in America, the spelling without the “e”, applies to Scotch whisky, Irish whisky, Bourbon whisky and every other whisky.  But then legal spellings mean diddley-squat.  It is useage that prevails, and here it is the wordsmiths, not the regulators or self-proclaimed whisky gurus who should have the final say.

Well, if it’s the wordsmiths, then why not look to a word book, let’s say the Oxford Dictionary – the standard for English English, wherein we find: “Whisky n. (Ir., US whiskey) ….”   Great!  So they’re exactly the same word but in Ireland and the USA it’s spelled “whiskey”, and it looks like editors and writers in those countries are free to use that spelling, regardless of who made the amber liquid of which they write.

An automotive magazine published in America, would not call those round, black, rubber things on a car’s wheels “tyres” just because they were made in a Commonwealth country, “tires” if they were made in America, or “pneus” if the were made in France.  No, they’d be tires in the American press, no matter where they came from.  Similarly you’d read about tyres in Britain and pneus in France whether the manufacturer was Goodyear, Dunlop, or Michelin. For whisky it is also most appropriate to use the language of the country of publication, whether that be France, Japan, Brazil or America, when a book or article is destined for that market.

I don’t know why some people get their shirts in such a knot over which spelling of whisk(e)y is used for the product of a specific country.
Oh, of course the marketers love to find obscure ways to “differentiate” their product, but what if they decided everyone must use the same pronouniations as well? What if you could only order Scotch with a Scottish accent (that would please the posers of course), and Irish whisky with an Irish accent?

Chuck Cowdery publishes the Bourbon County Reader, writes for Whisky Magazine, and is the author of Bourbon, Straight, one of the most informative, if occasionally opinionated, books about Bourbon, in print.  But when Cowdery recently suggested writers use the spelling of the country they write in, he became somewhat of a bloggers’ pariah and his idea was trounced as American arrogance by some of his (American) detractors. But if people are worried about American arrogance, isn’t forcing all writers to use “whiskey” for Irish whisky, as some American bloggers suggest, (actually they say you are stupid if you don’t, but please don’t tell Paddy), when both are correct, more likely to be viewed as arrogant Americans trying to force the whole world to use consistent spellings – their spellings (for products of foreign countries).  Similarly, some American bloggers’ insistence that Scotch whiskey not be spelt with an “e” could also be interpreted as trying to force conformity down people’s throats.  If it’s important to the Scottish, they’ll deal with it and don’t need foreigners bringing it to their attention.

But hang on just a minute.   There is also a rule of printed English that says if you use a foreign word it must be set in italics, so if you write Irish whiskey with an “e”, because that’s how the Irish spell it, you really should be italicizing the whiskey part – whiskey.  And if America spells whiskey with an “e”, then to be correct, American publications should use Scotch whiskey with an “e” or set Scotch whisky in italics, to use the Scottish spelling.  Do you see how ridiculous this business of using “the” correct form is becoming?  So why do some people so stridently insist they are right and any who disagree with them are “stupid”?

This really is an American problem, and perhaps that’s why the name-calling emanates from America.
Every whisky-producing country in the world uses or has recently used the spelling “whisky”.  American producers have not felt the need to collectively choose between the two spellings, but it’s “whiskey” in American dictionaries and tends to be the same on their labels.  The Irish until recently also used both spellings and whether they settled on the “e” spelling (and there’s no evidence it was even a conscious decision) to be cute or just to be different from the reviled Scots who stole the whisky industry out from under them, both spellings are still seen on older labels.  So one could say the correct spelling is “whisky” and the other is just an affectation. Meanwhile, writers, editors and publishers from Canada, a country of peacemakers, where the art of compromise borders on schizophrenia, can use spellings from either system as long as they remain consistent.  When some indignant, self-styled whisky expert decides to take them to task for writing American whisky they need only say they were thinking of Early Times, Old Potrero, George Dickel or Makers Mark; and of Irish whisky – well, I’ve included a photo of my no-e-Paddy they can point to.

So let’s let writers use whatever spelling helps them write most comfortably and leave it to editors, using their stylebooks, to decide whether or not to revise to other spellings.  Because that’s what it is – a matter of style, not law.

I’ll stick with the no-e spelling unless I’m writing about a brand that doesn’t.