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Did you hear the news!? Tony Abbott downed a beer! Quickly! A politician! The Prime Minister! Beer! Quickly! Beer!

The story of Abbott’s recent drink-em-up isn’t, in the grand scheme of things, really that remarkable. But there’s something about its coverage that caught our eye at Crikey: the spelling of the word that was shouted as the PM drained his glass.

Various (Australian) news outlets reported that Abbott had skolled a glass of beer, or was filmed skolling a glass in a mere six seconds, becoming one of the increasing number of boozy Aussie PMs to climb this Everest. Or did he rather skull the schooner, as others wrote? Or perhaps he sculled it, as our New Zealander cousins would have it?

To my ear, having grown up in the Deep South of the Deep North (the Gold Coast), the word ought to be spelled scull, or skul, or something similar. The vowel that I, and pretty much everyone I’ve ever heard say this word, produce is definitely closer to the ‘u’ in cull, or mulled, or, indeed, skull.

In fact, skul isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, but skol is.

The reason for this spelling, like so much English spelling, is because of historical precedent rather than present fact. The word arrived in English via Scots, a Germanic language closely related to English that was historically spoken in the Scottish lowlands (and not to be confused with Gàidhlig).

In that language the word, spelled variously scoll or scoal, had the sense of “to drink healths; to prolong a drinking session on the pretext of drinking toasts; to carouse” or, perhaps more relevantly to this discussion, “to consume (liquor) in large quantities when drinking toasts” (from the DSL). (One of the more delightful quotations to involve scolling is this, from the 1624 Extracts from the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen: “The act and ordinance … againis wachting, and scoalling, and superfluous banqueting at baptismes”. I know I’ve been guilty of the latter.)

So that might explain why we use an ‘o’ instead of a ‘u’, but why not a ‘c’ instead of a ‘k’? That’s possibly because the spelling with a ‘k’ is much more common in Germanic languages, which have cognates (words that have common etymological origin) to scoll, such as the Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish skål, and the Icelandic and Faroese skál, all meaning “cheers”.

So our spelling seems to be the offspring of the spellings of the Scots scoll, and the Scandinavian skal, the spellings of which make sense in their original languages — both of which, I might add, are unintelligible to everyday English speakers. So what we’re left with is a Nordic-Caledonian hybrid that has the venerable property of not really reflecting how speakers today say the thing.

Yep. English spelling is broken. We’ll raise a glass to that.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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