Australian English

Apr 22, 2015

Skol! scull! scoll! … erm … skål?

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

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 eyes at Fully (Sic) HQ: the spelling of what those around the PM shouted as he drained the glass. Various (Australian) news outlets reported that Mr. 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 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, a spelling with ‘u’ isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary (which rather modestly calls itself ‘The definitive record of the English language’), but skol is.

The reason for this spelling, like so much English spelling, is based on historical precedence 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, “t9o 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 skál/skål, 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 which 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.

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “Skol! scull! scoll! … erm … skål?

  1. P'i-kou

    Those North Germanic words mean ‘bowl’, the idea being that you would toast by raising a drinking bowl. (In modern Danish drikkeskål i.e. “drinkscoll” can refer to a water bowl for dogs.)

    You can come across people who claim that this is because the Vikings liked to drink their mead from the skulls of their enemies, hopefully after careful removal and cleaning. This doesn’t make much sense based on etymology: the Old Norse for ‘skull’ is skalli (which survives in Norwegian skalle, while in modern Icelandic it has come to mean ‘baldness’), a different word from skál ‘bowl’, and the two words go back to different Proto-Germanic roots.

    The idea that scoll originally meant ‘skull cup’, though now discredited, at some point made it to a mid-20C edition of Kluge’s venerable German etymological dictionary. There we find what could be the origin of the whole skullcup story: scoll and its cognates go back to a Germanic root which, in its Lombard form, is described by the 8th century historian Paul the Deacon as meaning not any bowl, but specifically one made from a skull.

    Paul mentions that the Lombard call such a cup scala (“quod genus poculi apud eos scala dicitur”) while telling how a Lombard king defeated his Gepid counterpart and then repurposed his head to toast with his daughter, Rosamund. Swinburne wrote a tragedy about her of which I might be allowed to quote the skull-toast scene:

    Bring me the cup. Queen, thou shalt pledge with me
    A health to all this kingdom and its weal
    Even from the bowl that here to hold in hand
    Assures me lord of Lombardy and thine
    By right and might of battle and of God—
    The skull that was thy father’s: so shalt thou
    Drink to me with thy father.

    Skulls might have nothing to do with scoll, but drinking from severed heads is an idea that has come to many minds in different cultures. Not to the Vikings apparently, but to pretty much everybody else, with a special mention of the richly decorated ritual skullcups used in Tibetan Buddhism, such as this one kept in Chengde, China.

  2. Kerri

    Thanks for clearing that up Lachlan. I don’t know why, maybe the form of the word, but I had always had a gut feeling the origins were Scandinavian? The minor irritant with the English language is that as a living language often meanings become lost or re established as something else completely. A happy person is no longer necessariliy gay! Adventurers are rarely described as “romantic” these days unless their adventures are in the bedroom! But I was perpetually angered by the recent bastardization of the term “shirtfront”! The term having been hijacked by football commentators with their vast knowledge of language to mean something completely at odds with the word itself. Correct me if I am wrong anyone but “shirtfront” means to grab the front of someones shirt and pulling it up in a threatening manner to mildly disable them and force them to come face to face with you and therefore listen to what you are saying. Hence “shirt” “front”!!!!
    To run at someone in a football match and thrust your shoulder into them has little to do with fronts and even less to do with shirts. Sadly now, courtesy of our bumbling idiot P.M. The whole world now regards the football definition as the true meaning of shirt front!!

  3. Dogs breakfast

    It was always skull to me, but I will accept scull.

    Skol, blimey, who are these grammatical pygmies.

  4. Electric Lardyland

    Hmmm, I wonder if this is part of an increasing trend for Abbott to swallow stuff, if he things it is going to win a bit of desperately needed approval? I hope so. It definitely has amusing and interesting possibilities. And I do think that it was a shame that no one offered him some crystal meth when he was launching his war on ice, or whatever it was, the other week.
    And in regards to the main matter of the article, I always thought it was skull and it was just colloquial. Of course I never did any research on the matter. But I just assumed it was skull, either because you were tipping alcohol into your skull, or you were increasingly becoming a numbskull.

  5. Stuart Coyle

    How fast can Abbott down a yard glass? That’s the measure of a real PM.

  6. The Pav

    Six seconds for a glass!!!!

    That’s sipping!

    It’s not fast……..If that’s Abbott’s best then he is as useless at beer drinking as being PM

  7. Marcus Ogden

    It’s in the Macquarie (Australian) Dictionary as “scull”, which is how I’ve always seen it spelt

  8. maureen cummuskey

    Oops. That should read there

  9. maureen cummuskey

    I’ve always known it as scull, and their is a competition where 2 teams of people take it in turn to down a glass of beer – comp is known as a boat race.

  10. Pierce Todd

    Perhaps this relates partly to the occasional Australian pronunciation of u” with a short “o” sound.

  11. tomasso

    Scull, because it’s what you do in boat races. QED.

  12. Coaltopia

    The Gold Coast is the Deep North until you head further “norf”.

  13. Virginia Gordon

    I’ll drink to that. Technically in the eyes of skollers a shandy is not a beer!

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