Words are a strange crop to grow, and an even stranger one to study. Oh, they have some common DNA, as it were, although there’s quite a lot of variation. Their soil is the human mind and the human vocal tract, and while there is a lot of flexibility and many options, there appear to be a few general parameters you can usually count on… usually. But where they can really fool you is when they go onto paper.
If you drink whisky or wine or brandy, you know that they don’t usually taste all that much like what they’re made from. Whisky doesn’t really give you a flavour of grains, not exactly; it’s been fermented and distilled. And it certainly doesn’t taste like water, its majority ingredient. Wine seldom tastes like grapes (there are exceptions) and brandy never does (a bit like raisins sometimes, but never like grapes). But at the same time, the grains and grapes can be cultivated for how they will taste after fermentation and, as the case may be, distillation.
Think of the written form of language as like the whisky, wine, brandy. This is not an exact analogy, but it has its uses. The written form does not always correspond reliably to the spoken form. Indeed, in a language such as English, what you get when you write a given sound can be very inconsistent from word to word. And once you compare writing from one language with writing from another, all bets are off. But sometimes the way we say the word – and the way we think of it – is shaped by how it’s spelled. And sometimes there are very interesting feedbacks even crossing from one language to another and back.
And that’s not even saying anything about the interplay of meanings. It can all get very intoxicating. There’s a certain magic in language… Watch as it turns water into whisky.
We start with uisce. This is not an English word; it’s not even in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a Gaelic word. You will find it in both Irish and Scots Gaelic, in the same form or as uisge (the two kinds of Gaelic are reasonably closely related, but there are certainly differences). Does it leave you wondering how to pronounce it? If you know the rules of Irish or Scots Gaelic pronunciation, it’s actually quite clear, just like what it refers to: depending on dialect, something like “ishkih” or “wishkey.” And it means “water”. If you say “Tabhair dhom gloine uisce,” which in Irish sounds sorta like “trrum glinna ishkey” to Anglophones, it means “Give me a glass of water.”
But there’s water and there’s water. In Slavic languages, add a diminutive ending to the word for “water” and you get vodka or wódka or similar, and you know what that is. In France, say “water of life” – eau-de-vie – and you are referring to a distilled spirit, such as brandy (the word brandy, not a French word, comes from Dutch brandewijn, “burnt wine”). The Irish and Scots follow the French in this – a diminutive added would just make uiscín, “a little water” (if you would even say it), but you’re talking about whisky when you say uisce beatha or uisge beatha, which means “water of life” and sounds like “wishkey bah” or “ishkibeh” or something on that order depending on dialect. When they started distilling their fermented grains, that’s the name they gave the result.
That name clearly was not going to transfer to English unaltered. Some words come over to English with spelling intact and sound changed, some with sound intact and spelling changed, some with both changed, only a few with everything intact. In this case, the sound was adapted moderately to suit English tongues, and the spelling was based on the English pronunciation. Actually, there were two different English versions at first: usquebaugh and whiskybae.
And we know that what has prevailed and made it down as the normal word in modern times is a cut version of the latter: whisky. It is also spelled whiskey. The two are pronounced the same, but it is very, very, very, VERY! important to some people that you get the spelling right (you know how some people are about these things – if they were concerned with fashion rather than words, they would be the ones tearing strips off you for wearing white after Labour Day). If you are drinking Scotch, it is whisky, no e. If you are drinking Bourbon, it is whiskey, with an e.
But the story does not end there. Let’s turn back to our Gaelic dictionary. The one I have ready to hand is Irish, because that’s the kind I’ve studied. You will find in it the word fuiscí, pronounced (to English ears) like “fishkey” with perhaps a hint of “w” after the “f”. I should say that the /hw/ that English sometimes (more formerly than now) has where we write wh is not a sound one makes per se in Irish. So that English sound was rendered in Gaelic as /f/ – and they spelled the word accordingly. They may not export their whisk(e)y to England and reimport it before drinking it, but they did export the word and reimport it. Sort of like if the French exported wine to another country to be made into brandy and then reimported it for drinking as such.
These are crazy crops, these words. You may want to tread with a light foot around them. Perhaps a Gordon Lightfoot – he sang “Whiskey and wine help me pass the time / I don’t leave no evidence.” Well, these words, with their Zugunruhe, do show evidence of their travels. They come back aged and transformed. And then we sit and sip them.
Tá tart mór orm anois. Cá bhfuil an fuiscí?*
Thanks to Roberto De Vido for suggesting uisce.
*I’m very thirsty now. Where’s the whisky? Pronounced sort of like “taw tart moor orum anish, caw will a fishkey?”