The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it “whiskey” or “whisky”?

Q: Your posting about Scotch-Irish got me to thinking about booze. I’ve always heard that Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are both distilled in the same way, except that the Irish don’t use peat in the process. Is this true?

A: You’re right. Most Scotch whiskies are made from barley that’s dried over peat smoke. Most Irish whiskeys are distilled from barley that’s dried in kilns.

But our blog is about language, not booze. As you’ve noticed, there’s another difference between these libations—the spelling.

In Scotland, they make Scotch “whisky” (plural “whiskies”), but in Ireland they make Irish “whiskey” (plural “whiskeys”).

American and British dictionaries generally observe this distinction when referring to these two products. But then the dictionaries go their separate ways.

In referring to versions of the liquor manufactured in other countries, British dictionaries spell it “whisky.” Some US dictionaries prefer “whiskey” while others accept both spellings as standard.

Why the difference? We haven’t found a definitive answer.

“What determines the spelling is often arbitrary, based mostly on tradition rather than any claim to authenticity,” Kate Hopkins writes in her book 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink (2009).

But it seems possible that the spellings, which have become consistent relatively recently, merely serve to differentiate the products commercially.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says: “In modern trade usage, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are thus distinguished in spelling.”

With these two products, spelling is no small matter, and that’s the case with “whiskey”/“whisky.” The New York Times learned this the hard way.

In December 2008, a Times columnist writing about single malts from the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands used the spelling “whiskey” throughout, as prescribed by the newspaper’s style guide.

He even went so far as to use the phrase “Scotch whiskey”! The Times was pelted with so many complaints that it changed its style.

A follow-up article in February 2009 noted the paper’s change in policy: “As of now, the spelling whisky will be used not only for Scotch but for Canadian liquor as well. The spelling whiskey will be used for all appropriate liquors from other sources.”

With or without the “e,” according to the OED, the word stands for “a spirituous liquor distilled originally in Ireland and Scotland, and in the British Isles still chiefly, from malted barley.” In the US, the OED adds, it’s made “chiefly from maize [corn] or rye.”

The word, Oxford notes, is short for earlier ones written as “usquebaugh,” “whiskybae,” “whisquy-beath,” and others recorded as far back as the 1500s.

They in turn were derived from “Irish and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha,” which literally means “water of life,” according to the dictionary.

The fact that “water” is lurking in “whiskey” (etymologically speaking) is an interesting point.

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) explains that “the words water, whiskey, and vodka flow from a common source, the Indo-European root wed-,” which means “water” or “wet.”

This root “could appear in several guises, as wed-, wod-, or
ud-,” American Heritage says, adding: “Water is a native English word that goes back by way of prehistoric Common Germanic watar to the Indo-European suffixed form wod-or, with an o.”

It goes on to say that the Gaelic compounds uisce beatha and uisge beatha are derived “from Old Irish uisce, ‘water,’ and bethad, ‘of life,’ and meaning literally ‘water of life.’ (It thus meant the same thing as the name of another drink, aquavit, which comes from Latin aqua vitae, ‘water of life.’) Uisce comes from the Indo-European suffixed form ud-skio-.”

Finally, American Heritage says, “the name of another alcoholic drink, vodka, comes into English from Russian, where it means literally ‘little water,’ as it is a diminutive of voda, ‘water’—a euphemism if ever there was one. Voda comes from the same Indo-European form as English water, but has a different suffix: wod-a.”

After all that, we need a drink!

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