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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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (7)


Cheers, and may the writers of the AP [bad]Stylebook suffer daily papercuts.

O Lord, John, now you'll start Alex going - again!

Isn't there a case to be made, not for perfectionism, but for clarity? It seems to me that there is something valid about maintaining a distinction between an ethnic definition and a proper name for a beverage. Doesn't have to be legislated, just appropriated.

I'm wondering if those Lowland Scots were supposed to be bonny rather than bony, though no doubt bony many of them were.

Here's Boswell himself, a Scot of the Scots, speaking in his own person and not quoting Johnson (paragraph breaks inserted):

Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, 'Don't tell where I come from.'

—'From Scotland,' cried Davies roguishly.

'Mr. Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.'

I am willing to flatter myself that I meant this as light pleasantry to sooth and conciliate him, and not as an humiliating abasement at the expence of my country. But however that might be, this speech was somewhat unlucky; for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression 'come from Scotland,' which I used in the sense of being of that country; and, as if I had said that I had come away from it, or left it, retorted, 'That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.'

Anyhow, Johnson's prejudice against the Scots was mostly for show, as another comment of Boswell's reveals:

His intimacy with many gentlemen of Scotland, and his employing so many natives of that country as his amanuenses, prove that his prejudice was not virulent; and I have deposited in the British Museum, amongst other pieces of his writing, the following note in answer to one from me, asking if he would meet me at dinner at the Mitre, though a friend of mine, a Scotchman, was to be there:—

'Mr. Johnson does not see why Mr. Boswell should suppose a Scotchman less acceptable than any other man. He will be at the Mitre.'

Note that both of them use "Scotchman".

Thanks for this. I've often wondered why, in Agatha Christie's books, anything or anyone to do with Scotland was "Scotch."

John Cowan suggested a few posts ago that scotch is still a productive word in describing foodstuffs and other produce, and that may be so, because when the prejudice against the word started to be popular among the opinionated, the foodstuff fixed expressions seemed to rouse no ire. Many of these are recipes etc, as in pancake, egg, broth, whisky and so on, but expressions like Scotch beef (which seem to me to be mere marketing concepts) suggest the word may carry a meaning indicating genuineness or tradition.

I don't have my Chambers 20th Century to hand - it's reliably Scottish - but I recall its definition of scotch indicated that there were many Scots for whom Scotch was still the normal word for people of that nation, and who thought aversion to the term mere pretentiousness (if I remember aright my edition is essentially that of 1951).

And Chambers confirms my own memory of how many Scots used "Scotch" in their everyday conversation in my youth - although I remain unconvinced they would necessarily have welcomed it from the mouth of an Englishman. That generation have no doubt gone to the Celestial Gathering by now, but one wonders if any of that feeling remains in Scotland today. I would ask some of those Scots of whom my life and home is stappit fu, but sadly long exile has thoroughly englished their English.

"courtesy requires you to speak of the Scots and things Scottish."

To complicate matters slightly further, in UK English 'Scots' is mostly used to denote a specific ethnicity -- the more common general term for people who come from Scotland, of whatever ethnicity, is "Scottish".

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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