Thursday, October 11, 2007

I'm Trying to Start a Trend.

Whiskey is one of those English words—like aging, center, color, maneuver, and many others—that Americans and Brits spell differently. American writers often struggle to use the British spelling when referring to scotch whiskey (i.e., 'whisky,' no 'e'). UK writers occasionally return the favor. An American would never think of spelling color with a 'u' just because the subject is colors used by an English painter, for example. Why should whiskey be any different?

I'm trying to start a trend in which American publications spell whiskey the American way, regardless of the type of whiskey being discussed. I would expect publications in Canada or the UK to do the same, favoring their spelling.

The sole exception would be that when stating the proper name of a specific product, the word will be spelled the way the producer spells it, and also be capitalized as befits a proper name.

Example: That sure was some good scotch whiskey.

Example: Pass me another drink of that Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky.

Why do I think a change of practice is needed? The problem is that maintenance of the dual spelling protocol suggests that "whiskey" and "whisky" are two different words with different meanings when they are not. There is no definition difference between them. They are merely alternative spellings, with one preferred in the United States and the other preferred in Great Britain, along with a long list of other words about which nobody has this problem.

However, the maintenance of this pained protocol, which leads us to write things like "whisk(e)y" to feel like we're covering the category with a single word, also leads many people to conclude that, in fact, they are two different words with two different meanings, and they imagine all sorts of nutty distinctions.

1 comment:

Davin de Kergommeaux said...

Americans and Scots spell many words differently when referring to exactly the same thing. American say “while”, for instance whilst the Scots (and Americans affecting Scottishness) say whilst.

Perhaps the spelling of whisk(e)y is a question better left to experts, those whose business is words rather than whisk(e)y anoraks. Editors carefully check the rules before committing to ink and there are reams of reference books that go beyond dictionaries to help them. The best editors are often newspaper editors of large journals like the New York Times in America. Most books that are published globally have at least two English editions. One uses American spellings, the other uses British (really international) spellings. Of course self-published books often lack the (considerable) benefit of a using a professional editor.

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

Similarly, there are two 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 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.

I always take it as a mark of a novice whisky writer to waste more than a sentence on the spelling of whisky because it really doesn't matter and I agree with the editors of Whisky/Whiskey that Americans spell it differently. I don't take their books seriously and never review them. The trouble for some writers is, that when they take a strong position before they really know what they are talking about they end up spending untold energy trying to defend their position rather than simply admitting that their book or articles were premature.

I think the way this whisky/whiskey business got started was one writer wrote about it and those who followed were too lazy to do their own research and simply copied it. The fact is 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 the 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 distillers were in such bad recession that they merged to form a single distillery and all Irish whisky was produced in a single plant. Thus with only one company producing Irish whisky you would expect only one spelling on the label. But that’s not the way it was until that recently.

I also have an old Scotch whisky jug made in Glasgow which uses the spelling whiskey. If you look at the Scotch Whiskey Order you will quickly find out that the Scottish have spelled it both ways and the legal spelling is (or at least until very recently was) 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 is another kettle of fish because both spellings are used commonly by whis(e)y makers, though I think for Bourbon the whiskey spelling prevails.

I don't know why some people get their shirts in such a knot over which spelling of whisk(e)y is used. There is a saying that people incapable of making decisions like rules and I know some people just love to cram rules down our throats. I prefer guidelines and flexibility if someone else comes to a different conclusion on which accepted spelling of a word to use. There was a television series called the Story of English which showed just how many different languages all think of themselves as English. What if we decided everyone should use the same pronouniations as well? Editors at one of the worlds largest publishing houses (Dorling Kindersly), who publish many whisky books, agree with Chuck Cowdery and use the spelling of the country of publication.

If people are worried about American arrogance, I think forcing people to use whiskey for Irish whisky, when both are correct could easily be seen as American arrogance trying to force the whole world to use consistent spellings. Similarly insisting that Scotch whiskey not use the ‘e’ could also be interpreted as Americans trying to force a rule down people's throats. If it's important to the Scottish, they'll deal with it and don't need American writers bringing it to their attention.