Whiskey vs Whisky: Use in Books
While talking to a friend about my project uncover when and how whisk(e)y came to have two spellings he suggested I look at Google books Ngram Viewer. The Ngram Viewer is a tool that creates a visual representation for how often a word, phrase or series of words shows up in all the books scanned by Google. If you are interested in reading my thoughts on some of the limitation and complications related to using the Ngram Viewer for this project, click on the works cited link here or at the bottom of the post.
When I entered whiskey and whisky into the Ngram Viewer I got some interesting results. The chart showed that from 1700 to 2008 whiskey and whisky fluctuated in terms of how much one spelling was used compared to the other. While whisky started off as the more common spelling, whiskey took the lead between 1800 and 1850. However, between 1850 and 1965 whisky, without an e, was the more widely used spelling, with whiskey becoming more popular in the last 50 years of the search.
To gain some clarity I repeated the same Ngram search two more times except I limited the results by country of origin. Next to the date range is a corpus menu which changes what books the Ngram viewer draws its data from. The first search, described above used the corpus of all English language books published in any country. In the second search I changed the corpus to British English which means the results only came from English language books published in the Great Britain. For the first 150 years the shape of the graph closely resembles the Fig.1 with some differences in amplitude. However, after 1850 the new graphs is markedly different from Fig.1 and Fig.3. From 1860 to 2008 whisky was used at least twice as often as whiskey in Great Britain, with a near 5 to 1 incidence in the 1950s.
In contrast, the Ngram using the corpus of American English (i.e. English language books published in the United States) tells a different story. Limiting the results in this way revealed that in the US whisky started off as the more popular spelling until about 1790. From then until 1917 whiskey spelled with an e was use more frequently. Interestingly from 1917 though 1955 whisky was used slightly more often than whiskey. However, after the 1960s whiskey was use four times more often than its alternate.
These Ngrams provide a fuller picture for whisk(e)y's use beyond the simple explanations described in the first post of this series. Charles Cowdery's suggestion that whiskey and whisky are simply alternate spellings each favored by American or British English speakers is not fully correct; the Ngrams demonstrate that the use of whisk(e)y is more complicated than that. Great Britain has clearly favored spelling whisky without an e, but the United States has used both with varying frequency. While it would be interesting to speculate why the use of whiskey and whisky fluctuated more in the US than in Great Britain, or why one spelling peaked during a particular time frame, Ngrams and Etymology dictionaries cannot provide these answers. So the project to better understand when and why whisk(e)y has two spellings continues.