Whiskey vs Whisky: Dictionaries & Definitions
When searching for information on the definition and spelling of a word the first, and most obvious place to look is in a dictionary. Dictionaries are interesting things. while at first glance they appear static and unchanging, they serve as markers for the fluid shifts in language over time. Because language is dynamic, dictionaries both set the standard for how words are used and lag behind how people use words in day to day speech and writing. Whisk(e)y is an interesting example of the linguistic power and limitations of dictionaries and provides another layer of complexity to the story of why whisk(e)y has two spellings.
In 1806, Noah Webster published the first American dictionary, with the first American spelling and definition for whisky. Webster's, Compendious Dictionary Of the English Language spelled whisky without an e and simply defined it as “a spirit distilled from grain.” The interesting thing about this entry is the spelling because we know from several sources, including the letters of George Washington, that it was common to spell whiskey with an e.
Twenty-two years later in Webster's second dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, he expanded the definition of whisky. The new definition included information on geographic variations, not in spelling but in the agricultural base. The entry says that “In the north of England, [whisky] is given to the spirit drawn from barley. [While] in the United States, whisky is generally distilled from wheat, rye or maiz.” This spelling and definition was repeated almost exactly in the 1844 edition, which was printed one year after Noah Webster's death. Webster’s Dictionary suggests that the primary difference between whiskies made in the US and the UK was their agricultural base not their spelling. However, there is a second explanation for why Webster only listed one spelling. Webster was a strong proponent of simplifying the spelling of English words and led the effort to Americanize words like color/colour, favor/favour and center/centre. Webster's decision to only list one spelling for whisk(e)y may have been motivated by his desire for one simplified spelling.
After Noah Webster's death the family sold the rights to the dictionary and several were published bearing his name. In 1890, the first edition of Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language was released and for the first time it included both whisky and whiskey. Even though both spellings were listed nothing was said about a geographic preference in spelling. The most interesting thing about Webster's International is how whiskey and whisky were used in other definitions. The definitions for Bourbon, Julep, and Spirit all used whisky without an e, while Usquebaugh, the Gaelic root for whisk(e)y, was defined as “Irish or Scotch whiskey” with and e! While Webster's International Dictionary and subsequent editions, continued to list two spellings for whisk(e)y none of them ever described the variations in a geographic context. Which suggests that both spellings were interchangeable.
Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary corroborates that in the decades surrounding the turn of the century both spellings of whisk(e)y were used interchangeably. Bierce, a journalist and contemporary of Mark Twain, wrote short stories and from 1881 to 1906, published satirical definitions of everyday words in the newspapers he worked for. These definitions were collected together into a work titled The Devil's Dictionary. Throughout Bierce's 1000 or so definitions, whiskey and whisky each showed up exactly two times without any indication of a geographic preference for spelling. Since each definition was published individually in an American newspaper for an American audience, it suggests that both spellings were equally common and at that time lacked a geographic component.
To find any indication that the spelling of whisk(e)y was embedded with a geographic dimension, you have to turn to the Eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, published in 2004. In its definition for Scotch, one definition described it as a “whiskey distilled in Scotland esp. from malted barley – called also Scotch whisky.” While the definition seems to prefer the American spelling it acknowledges that an alternate spelling does exists.
These dictionaries demonstrate that until recently Americans have used both spellings of whisk(e)y without considering where it was being made.