I'm Scotch, so pour me one
A few days ago, sniping at Hugo Lindgren of The New York Times for dropping Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” columns, I wrote, “God may forgive—that’s the job description—but I’m Scotch-Irish.” A reader hastened to comment: “ ‘Scotch’! Please don’t! That’s the drink.”
I suspect that we may be dealing once again with the limitations of the AP Stylebook, which is correct, but only up to a point, in saying that Scotch is a drink and Scots are people.*
Samuel Johnson, who loved to chaff James Boswell about his origins, regularly referred to the Scotch, which was the common term in the eighteenth century for people from Scotland. In our time, the term has come to seem both old-fashioned and disparaging; it is mildly offensive to use it.
But the bony Lowland Scots who settled in Ulster and then crossed the water to America, many of them winding up in Appalachia, called themselves Scotch-Irish, and the term remains in use in the United States. And not just here. When John Kenneth Galbraith came to write about his people in Canada, the title of his book was The Scotch.
(You can call us Scots-Irish if you like. This is America.)
So by all means pour yourself a dram of Scotch, whether it’s the smooth Balvenie or the pungent Laphroaig, which John McPhee described as being like “drinking bacon.” Have a Scotch egg with it if you’re peckish. Stroke the ears of your Scotch terrier. Bring a Scotch pine into the house to decorate for Christmas.
But if you are in Scotland, courtesy requires you to speak of the Scots and things Scottish.
As for me, I remain Scotch-Irish. David McCullough, writing about Harry Truman’s ancestors, quotes what he says is a traditional Scotch-Irish prayer: “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to turn.”
*I am aware that AP insists on Scotch whisky but scotch as the drink by itself. It is a pity that its editors cannot see the curl of my lip.