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'Scotch-Irish' term at the center of grammatical debate

One day I was lamenting to my friend, Patti, who helps me in my office, about my smart-aleck mouth.

"I just can't help myself," I complained as she looked over some files. "Somebody says or does something that I don't cotton to and I just pop right back at them with a dagger-sharp comeuppance. Then, I feel terrible because I smarted off like that. It's not biblical."

It is a demon with whom I dance constantly. Are my words sardonic? Usually. Witty? Normally. Clever? Mostly. Christian? Rarely.

Saintly Patti smiled sympathetically. "We have all sinned and fallen short."

I narrowed my eyes, cut them over at her and replied - sarcastically, of course - "Thanks."

But I resolved, right then and there, that I would do better. No more quick cuts to the jugular - all done with a charming smile and wink, of course - or razor-sharp comments that shave away criticism and put someone back in their place after I decide they have stepped over the line.

This resolve, so firm and sincere, lasted 30 well-meaning minutes.

Then, I received an e-mail from a newspaper editor in which she forwarded a reader's slap on my hand.

"Please tell Rhonda (sic) Rich that it is not Scotch-Irish. It is Scot-Irish. Scotch is a drink. This is the second time she has made this mistake."

Obviously, this man is not a regular reader. I have used that term dozens of times.

There are two types of people who know that Scotch-Irish is a perfectly acceptable term when referring to that mixed breed of people: Those who are wise and learned, and those who are descended from that mixed breed of people.

Obviously, that man was neither. (See what I mean about my smart-aleck mouth?)

Also, if we're going to quibble over technicalities, and, apparently, we are, it's Scots-Irish. Not Scot-Irish.

I just hate it when someone calls me wrong, when they are wronger. (Don't write. I know that's not a word. But I'm Scotch-Irish and we are determined, defiant and developers of new words.)

To this male reader and the one other person who once tried to correct my usage of the term, here are some facts:

Scots-Irish is a recent addition to the universal lexicon, derived to please the Scots. Scotch-Irish is the genuine term, as pure as the limestone waters of Kentucky that make the state's race horses run faster and, oh yes, their whiskey - bourbon not scotch - finer.

We descendants of the Ulster-Scots, who originally hailed from the Scottish Lowlands, then moved to Ireland's Province of Ulster before crossing the ocean and infiltrating the Appalachians, prefer to be called Scotch-Irish.

And, really, you should only have a say in this if you are one.

Of the dozens of books published on the subject, 95 percent use the term Scotch-Irish. One notable exception is "Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America" by James Webb (Broadway, $14.95), a renowned piece of work by Virginia's newest elected Democratic U.S senator. So, too, maybe liberals call it one thing and conservatives call it another. That's par for the course.

Maybe you tend to be Scotch-Irish as opposed to Scots-Irish if you lean toward the whiskey-making talents of our people. As my uncle always proclaims, "You know you're Scotch-Irish, if the Irish in you wants a drink but the Scotch doesn't want to pay for it."

So, I sat down and fired back quickly, sardonically, cleverly, wittily and un-Christianly at my latest detractor. I ended my epistle by writing, "And since we're nit-picking, my name is spelled R-O-N-D-A. There is no 'h.'"

If you're going to cast aspersions, be sure to be aspersion-free.

We Scotch-Irish folks are known for our peculiar ways.

"Quaire," my grandmamma always said, using a distinct word of our people. We are stubborn, resourceful, hard working, sharp-tongued and we don't take kindly to outsiders bossing us around (remember the Civil War?).

Oh yeah, and did I mention that some of us are real smart alecks, too?

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."