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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, January 25, 2013

Robbie Burns Day

In my post for Hogmanay, I mentioned the Scottish love for whisky, and what better day than today to look at the etymology of this word.

Back in the 1400s, the intoxicating substance found in fermented drinks had been called "burning water" or "ardent water" ("ardent" in its original literal sense of "burning", from Latin ardere to burn). It was also known by a Latin term meaning "water of life": aqua vitae. In Gaelic, water is uisge and life is beatha, and these two words ended up together as  usquebaugh, which word soon came to designate the particular tipple of Ireland and Scotland distilled from barley malt (with, in the case of the Irish drink and blended Scotch, corn). The word became further corrupted in English as "whiskybae", subsequently shortened to "whisky".

Towards the end of the 19th century, the drinks industry created a spelling distinction between "whiskey" for the Irish version and "whisky" for the Scottish one. Meanwhile, in the US, "whiskey" has always been the preferred spelling for their version made from corn, bourbon, named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it was first made. Here in Canada, as you might expect, we use both spellings for our traditional beverage, rye whisky, with "whisky" having an edge over "whiskey".

Whisky is not the only kind of alcoholic drink whose name disguises an allusion to water. "Vodka" literally means "little water".

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.