The Grammarphobia Blog

Scot, Scotch, or Scottish?

Q: In your remarks about the verdict “not proven” in Scotland, you refer to “Scottish law.” I hate to contradict you, but the proper expression is “Scots Law.” And as an aside, I wonder if you realize that in Scotland’s courts, the word “proven” has a long-O sound, as in “woven.” My father was a judge in Scotland, and I had to listen to the long O since I was … oh, 36 months old! Even today, after 40 years in Canada, I still can’t get used to the PROO-ven pronunciation.

A: Thanks for your interesting comment. We could plead “not proven,” and argue that we were simply referring in a general way to the laws in Scotland. But why quibble? We’ve updated the blog item to add a reference to Scots Law.

This also gives us a chance to write about the three adjectives “Scot,” “Scotch,” and “Scottish,” a subject that “is somewhat unsettled,” in the understated words of the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the adjective was Scyttisc or Scottisc. In Middle English, about 1100 to 1500, it was written all sorts of ways (Scottysc, Scottisc, Scottissh, etc.), often depending on where you lived.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, it was pronounced like “Scottish” (with various spellings) in the south of England, and “Scottis” in the north as well as in Scotland.

Writers in England began contracting “Scottish” to “Scotch” in the late 16th century, while writers in Scotland began shortening “Scottis” to “Scots” in the early 18th century.

But language is a messy business, and some Scottish writers, notably Robert Burns (1759-96) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), regularly used “Scotch” as an adjective.

Since the mid-19th century, the OED says, there has been “a growing tendency” in Scotland to abandon the adjective “Scotch” in favor of “Scottish” or “Scots.”

Why? Perhaps because “Scotch,” with its English roots, had come to be viewed in the 19th century as merely an Anglicized version of the word “Scots.”

In England, “Scotch” was the “the prevailing form” from the late 17th century until the 19th century, according the OED, though “Scottish” was used in more formal writing.

But in the 20th century, the OED adds, the word “Scotch” fell “into disuse in England as well as in Scotland.”

Nevertheless, the adjective “Scotch” survives in phrases like “Scotch whisky,” “Scotch pine,” “Scotch broth,” and so on.

So which adjective should a writer use today? A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) offers some helpful advice:

“In the interest of civility, forms involving Scotch are best avoided in reference to people; designations formed with Scots are most common (Scot, Scotsman, or Scotswoman), but those involving the full form Scottish are sometimes found in more formal contexts.”

The dictionary notes that “Scotch-Irish is the most commonly used term for the descendants of Scots who migrated to North America, but lately Scots-Irish has begun to gain currency among those who know that Scotch is considered offensive in Scotland.”

“There is, however, no sure rule for referring to things,” the AH usage note concludes, “since the history of variation in the use of these words has left many expressions in which the choice is fixed, such as Scotch broth, Scotch whisky, Scottish rite, and Scots Guards.

So if in doubt, look it up in the dictionary!

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