How do I spell whisk(e)y?

Wonder why I put a parenthetical “e” in whisk(e)y? You guessed it, because it’s optional. The word can be spelled “whiskey” or “whisky” depending on your preference or where you’re from. Does it make a difference? Not really.

I’ll probably get a lot of hate mail for that last statement because many feel dogmatic about the spelling rules. They feel an amount of pride in their country’s spelling of the word. Since we’re dealing with people’s home town sentimentalities we should be considerate. I’ll give you the rule, and then explain why I feel no one should be pushing one spelling over another.

The general rule is if a brown spirit is from Canada, Scotland, or Japan it’s spelled “whisky.” And if it’s from The United States or Ireland it’s spelled “whiskey.” Of course there’s always exceptions to the rule, but let me outline 3 reasons why you don’t need to fret.

1. While there are many English-speaking countries around the world, there’s no universal English standard. For example, Americans say “apartment, elevator, and cell phone,” but the British say “flat, lift, and mobile.” There are dozens more of these examples when you compare English around the globe. Even within the same country there can be several words for the same thing. In the U.S. the words “highway, expressway, parkway, interstate, and freeway” can be used to express the same concept. How does this relate to the spelling of whiskey? Nobody makes a fuss about any of the above examples and they’re completely different words. So why should we care if whisk(e)y is spelled with an “e” or not? It doesn’t even change the way the word is pronounced! I could understand caring if the pronunciation changed with the spelling but in spoken English there’s no difference.

2. The spelling should be tied to the people consuming, not the object. What do I mean by this? The people making a stink about the spelling of whiskey aren’t even arguing the right case. They say that no matter where you are if you’re writing about Scotch you spell it “whisky” and if you’re writing about an Irish dram it’s spelled “whiskey.” If you’re going to argue at all, it should at least be the case that you ought to spell according to the audience who’s doing the reading. Let me give an example. If I’m an American writing a tractor-trailer review column, in America for Americans, and I’m reviewing a truck imported from England, what word do I use? The American “tractor-trailer” or the English word “lorry”? I would use “tractor-trailer,” the word my audience will understand, and not “lorry” just because the truck is from England. The same should be true of the spelling of whiskey. Spell it according to your primary audience, if you’re even going to argue how it’s spelled.

3. Spell whiskey the way you want for your own reasons and not because of someone else’s rule. I’m not a fan of arbitrary traditions, especially when people try to force them on others. What are the reasons behind the spelling differences in whiskey? I have yet to find a good answer to that question. Of all the lore and supposed history behind the spelling differences, none of them are compelling. It’s basically tradition because someone else said so. If it’s an arbitrary tradition, then pick the way you want to spell it for your own reasons.

I like to spell it “whiskey.” Does that mean I’m right and anyone who spells it without an “e” is wrong? No, it’s just my preference. Why? Because to my eye it makes more sense phonetically, and not because I’m from America. When I was 6 years old I did the same thing to the spelling of my first name. I was taught to spell my name Z-a-c-h, but changed it to Z-a-c because I didn’t want the other phonetic readers out there to mistakenly pronounce my name Za·ch rhymes with snatch. My name ends with a hard “k” sound and I didn’t want to leave that up to chance.

What should you do if someone corrects your spelling of whiskey? It’s not worth getting into a debate with them over it. Simply thank them for bringing it to your attention, take comfort that you and I both know that person is acting like a dogmatic traditionalist, and remember not to imitate them.

— Zac Smith

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