English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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.”

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.

By the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was “uncertainty among the educated classes in Scotland concerning the relative ‘correctness’ of the three competing terms”—“Scots,” “Scottish,” and “Scotch.”

And by the mid-19th century, there was “a growing tendency among educated speakers to favour the more formal Scottish or (less frequently) the more traditional Scots over what was perceived as the more vulgar Scotch,” the OED says.

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.

“By the beginning of the 20th cent.,” Oxford notes, “disapproval of Scotch by educated Scots was so great that its use had become something of a shibboleth (much to the bafflement of speakers outside Scotland for whom this was the usual word).”

And “during the 20th cent. educated usage in England gradually began to adapt in deference to the perceived Scottish preferences.”

Nevertheless, the adjective “Scotch” survives in a few phrases like “Scotch whisky,” “Scotch broth,” and “Scotch barley.” Although “Scotch pine” has survived in the US, the tree is “Scots pine” in the UK, where it’s the national tree of Scotland.

So which adjective should a writer use today? A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) suggests that “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!

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 3, 2021, and May 19, 2022.]

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