Scots - Scotch - Scottish

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These three words share their denotation, or 'dictionary meaning'. They are all forms of the adjective derived from 'Scotland', the name of the most northern of the countries in the United Kingdom. So they all mean 'from, belonging to or to do with Scotland'. Their usages and connotations are, however, different, and tactful writers will observe distinctions.

  • Scottish is the most neutral. You will not give offence if you use the word - although you may cause amusement if you use it of whisky. This is the preferred term in writing, except for some set phrases.
  • Scots is closely derived from the form in the language or dialect of Scotland, scottis. It is the word most often used to describe the language and law of the country - Scots law is different from English law. The language in which Robert Burns wrote is best called, as a single word, Scots (language), or, as a phrase, 'the Scottish dialect' - the phrase he used on the title page of the first editions of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. In historical times, before the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, measurements and currency were different, and it was usual then to refer to 'two pound Scots' (post nominal in that order of words) or 'a Scots mile', etc. If you are writing History now, stick to this usage in describing the units of the past.
  • Scotch was the most usual form from the mid-seventeenth century, both in England and in Scotland. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has often been rejected by the people of Scotland, particularly by those with nationalistic instincts, as being a derogatory term used by English people to belittle their northern neighbours. This is despite the fact that the most famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796), used the word Scotch quite happily. So did Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who did so much to spread the idea of Scotland and Scottishness to the rest of the world. You are best advised to avoid the word 'Scotch' in formal writing nowadays, as it may seem prejudicial to some of your readers. The form 'Scottish' is to be preferred. Some things, nevertheless, are usually called Scotch, and it would be funny if they were called anything else: Scotch broth (a kind of soup); Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat); Scotch mist, a drizzle or fine rain; Scotch pancakes, an alternative term for what are more commonly called 'drop scones'; Scotch tape, a brand of adhesive tape made by 3M; and Scotch whisky (often called just by the adjective used substantively - Scotch).
There are also several words written 'scotch' of which the etymology is unclear, but which are unrelated to the meaning above. These fall into two groups:
      • The general sense of 'a cut', particularly a straight line scored into something. The noun is used of the wounds and scars left by a sword, and can still be seen in the name of the children's game hopscotch, where players hop over lines originally cut into turf (now usually chalked on pavement). The verb means 'to cut', 'make a gash', 'wound'. It is also used to mean 'render something temporarily harmless, without destroying it nor removing its power to harm', but this may be simply a misreading of what was originally printed as scorch'd, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, III ii 13: "we have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it", referring to the murder of Banquo while his son has escaped to remain a threat in the future.
      • The general sense of 'to block'. The verb meant originally, and still in some dialects, 'to hesitate', or, of a horse, 'to start, or shy'. Only later did it come to be used for 'to block [a wheel or door, etc] from moving or slipping', 'to place a chock [under a wheel] or wedge [under a door]'. As a noun, scotch has been largely replaced by chock.