On the 28th, I posted “Drunk on words, and a lot of whiskey”, on Dylan Thomas. To which Bill Halstead cried out in pain on Facebook:

“whisky” No ‘e’!!!!

I replied:

I carried over the spelling from the NYT story, which, being American, used the American spelling, with the E; the British and Canadian spelling lacks the E. There’s no winning here: omitting the E would mis-report the NYT, but keeping it is incorrect from the British point of view. A sensible person would just treat the two spellings as interchangeable alternatives.

This is a classic case of conditions in conflict, in particular faithfulness (Faith), saying (among other things) that a quotation should be faithful to its source (so: WHISKEY when quoting from the NYT), vs. well-formedness (WF), saying that a quotation should be well-formed according to the practices of the original source (so: WHISKY when quoting from a UK source about Scotch).

(A complexity here is that the NYT was pretty obviously not faithful to its sources, which were British.)

(For an inventory of postings on Faith vs. WF up to 6/27/09, look here. Two further examples in a posting of 12/1/10. Let me stress once again that in these matters there is no one clear “right answer”.)

An amendment to my American vs. British/Canadian distinction above, from the Grammarist site:

The difference between whiskey and whisky is simple but important: whisky usually denotes Scotch whisky and Scotch-inspired liquors, and whiskey denotes the Irish and American liquors.

The word itself (both spellings) is of Celtic origin, and modern whisky/whiskey distillation practices originated in Ireland and Scotland. Using whiskey to refer to Scotch whisky can get you in trouble in Scotland.

So: American/Irish vs. British/Canadian.

Actual practice is considerably more complex. Some British sources do indeed go for WHISKY for the indubitably American liquor bourbon. Here’s Selfridges on-line (from London) offering “Willett’s pot straight bourbon whisky 750m”, characterized as:

Named for the original founder of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Thompson Willet, this is a smooth, full bodied style of Bourbon, with flavours of crushed flowers, corn, leather, tobacco, sweet spice and vanilla, presented in a pot still shaped bottle.

but with an illustration of that bottle, along with the clear name “Bourbon whiskey” on it.

And then there are American occurrences of WHISKY, notably in Whisky Advocate magazine (“America’s leading whisky publication”, including bourbon whiskey). And then very strikingly in Maker’s Mark, whose website tells us:

The spelling of Maker’s Mark [bourbon] whisky is to honor the Samuels’ Scottish heritage

To “E” or not to “E,” that is the question:
WHISKEY: generally United States, Ireland
WHISKY: generally Scotland, Canada, Japan

Japan is a new entry in the WHISK(E)Y survey: WHISKY presumably because the liquor in question is Scotch-style.

6 Responses to “WHISK(E)Y”

  1. Richard Says:

    Isn’t this also affected by the practice of “translating” certain words from British English into American English and vice-versa?

    For example, would the NYT refer to Tony Blair as a member of the “Labour Party” rather than the “Labor Party”? That is, wouldn’t they “translate” this into American English?

    By the same token, if an American gave a speech that used the word “color,” wouldn’t the Guardian print “colour”?

    Is this matter of spelling one small area in which you could say these are actually two distinct languages?

  2. chrishansenhome Says:

    Generally newspapers here use British spellings when reporting what Americans say or write. The Grauniad does, however, refer to the Australian Labor Party when it writes about it.

    The two variants in UK/US spelling that drive me bonkers (being a transplanted American here for 21 years) are aluminium vs. aluminum, and tyre vs. tire. I’ve adopted UK English spelling for most common words, but I can’t bring myself to write “aluminium”. Luckily for me, I hardly ever have to write about “tyres”.

    • Iain T Says:

      I’ve never understood why, but the Australian Labor Party spells it that way, even though labour would probably be the more appropriate spelling here in Australia (c.f. the various state public holidays).

  3. Éamonn McManus Says:

    Of only tangential relevance, in my current choral activity I find myself having to sing Sacred Harp 186 and pronounce “shone” as if it were the same as “shown”. That is at least as difficult as Chris having to write aluminium correctly.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Morag Macdonald on Facebook:

    Most autocorrects change whisky to whiskey. That annoys me! There are differences in the drinks themselves though, taste and legality wise. For example, bourbon whiskey barrels in the USA can only be used once (a hangover from depression days trying to keep coopers in business, although current economic climates make that likely to change in the near future) with whisky distilleries buying the used casks to age their spirit. This makes for distinctive differences in flavours available to be absorbed from the wood, creating the more subtle flavours of a whisky and justifying the name difference. The two spellings differentiate between the different production methods and resulting taste, but really I think it only matters to those of us whose palate can differentiate between them anyway! It is important for retailers to get it right though, so we know we’re buying what we think we are.
    Currently a few of the Scottish distilleries are making ‘virgin wood’ whiskies, presumably trying to appeal to the bourbon market, so look out for Auchentoshan or Glen Garioch (pronounced gay-ree should you order one!) if that appeals. They’re quite nice, but a bit different from what I’d expect from a single malt.
    I did have a very nice Jura 21 last night – whisky – no ‘e’! x

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