GREY/GRAY.

Conrad alerted me to the strikingly discursive OED etymology of the word they list as “grey, gray, a. and n.” After a brief and boring account of its origin (it’s from Old English grǣᵹ, and has only Germanic cognates), they provide this exhaustive inquiry into its alternate spellings:

Each of the current spellings has some analogical support. The only mod.Eng. words repr. OE. words ending in –ǽᵹ are key (which is irrelevant on account of its pronunciation), whey, and clay. If we further take into consideration the words repr. OE. words in –ǽᵹe, viz. blay or bley, fey, wey, we have three (or four) instances of ey and only two (or one) of ay. On the other hand, this advantage in favour of grey is counterbalanced by the facts that clay is the only word of the five which is in very general use, and that grey is phonetically ambiguous, while gray is not. With regard to the question of usage, an inquiry by Dr. Murray in Nov. 1893 elicited a large number of replies, from which it appeared that in Great Britain the form grey is the more frequent in use, notwithstanding the authority of Johnson and later Eng. lexicographers, who have all given the preference to gray. In answer to questions as to their practice, the printers of The Times stated that they always used the form gray; Messrs. Spottiswoode and Messrs. Clowes always used grey; other eminent printing firms had no fixed rule. Many correspondents said that they used the two forms with a difference of meaning or application: the distinction most generally recognized being that grey denotes a more delicate or a lighter tint than gray. Others considered the difference to be that gray is a ‘warmer’ colour, or that it has a mixture of red or brown (cf. also the quot. under 1c below). In the twentieth century, grey has become the established spelling in the U.K., whilst gray is standard in the United States. There seems to be nearly absolute unanimity as to the spelling of ‘The Scots Greys’, ‘a pair of greys’. As the word is both etymologically and phonetically one, it is undesirable to treat its graphic forms as differing in signification.

(I love the Victorian appeal to the printers of The Times, Messrs. Spottiswoode and Messrs. Clowes, and “other eminent printing firms.”) I find it somewhat bizarre that a lot of people tried to differentiate the spellings according to meaning, but on reflection, it’s just one more example of humanity’s insistence on imposing meaning everywhere it turns.


In the entry proper, I found this (presumably long-forgotten) proverb: “the grey mare is the better horse: the wife rules the husband. Hence, in allusion to this proverb, simply the grey mare: the wife who rules her husband.” And I was amused to see, among the DRAFT ADDITIONS FEBRUARY 2004, “(A name for) a member of any of various supposed species of grey-skinned, humanoid, extraterrestrial beings. Usu. in pl.” First two cites:
[1987 Chicago Tribune (Nexis) 22 Mar. 6C, Skeptics who balk at the notion of flying saucers and little gray men are called closed-minded.]
1989 UFO Sept.-Oct. 37/1 The ETs I’ve experienced have exhibited a wide range of forms. I have had no contact with the ‘greys’ (from Zeta Reticulum), and have been told that I will not need to.
“And have been told that I will not need to”: must have been a relief!

Comments

  1. Reticuli, please.
    Of the people who bear the surname, most seem to be Gray rather than Grey. Looking at 1990 U.S. Census data, Gray stands in 79th place with 236,713 bearers, but Grey in 2,691st place, with 12,338 bearers. (The top ten surnames are boringly predictable: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez, and Wilson. However, many of the bearers of the eight Anglo names are calques (Miller < Mueller, e.g.) or African-Americans.)
    As for semantics: mist is grey, battleships are gray.

  2. The difference has always seemed trivial here in NZ, even to most of those who would insist that color is just plain “wrong.” As a name, it’s definitely most often “Gray”, but I tend to think of the colour as “grey”, without any attempt to impose meaning on the arbitrary distinction.

  3. I have to force myself to write “gray” sometimes: I have a deep emotional attachment to the spelling “grey,” which I suppose goes back to my favorite authors being English, and my least favorite being American, when I was a teenager. So for me, as for John, “gray” is an unpleasant, metallic, or dull color, whereas “grey” is an attractive, organic, or transcendent color. I recognize this as silly, but I just go ahead and write “grey” or “gray,” according to whether I have pleasant or unpleasant associations with the word, and come back later, as a rational editor, to turn them all into “gray.” (If I’m writing chiefly for Americans, anyway.)

  4. Fascinating! It would never have occurred to me to differentiate like that, but I can see it’s a frequent and apparently deeply rooted impulse.

  5. Noetica says:

    For me the spelling has to be grey, since I am Australian. And as a grapheme synaesthete I happen to find the spelling gray disconcerting: grey is dominated by its rather light g and e, according well with the colour in question; but gray has an intrusively vivid and non-greyish green a.

  6. For some reason I was under the impression that, properly speaking, “gray” ought to refer to a person (“when I am old and gray”), while “grey” is the color itself. I’ve never actually differentiated in practice, though. I always use “gray.”

  7. I am fairly certain that my sense that “grey” is more apt to describe a light shade and “gray” a dark hasn’t come from my insistence on imposing meaning but on noticing the difference and simply, well, finding (perhaps in a bit of orthographic synaesthesia or according to the “secondary senses” Wittgenstein discusses according to which Wednesday is fat and Tuesday lean (for him)) that I am moved so to dispose the spellings to the shades.
    Oh, I guess I should have looked at Noetica’s comment. Though this is the only case I can think of where I have this instinct (though also the only one where it might be relevant). “Grey” just itself seems lighter.

  8. Noetica says:

    “Grey” just itself seems lighter.
    A speculation: grey might seem lighter because of the association of e with front-or-close sounds, and gray darker because of the more open-or-back associations of a, even if the sound actually represented is the same for both spellings. See Sound symbolism at Wikipedia, and while you’re at it skim through the fascinating Japanese sound symbolism. (Surely this has been raised before at LH?)

  9. Grey is the color of London fog, and of ghosts, clouds, and ethereal things in general, especially weather. Kittens are sometimes grey. The eyes of a haunted person are grey. Grey is melancholy, depressed, and insubstantial, but also hints of a mystery or tragedy to come.
    Gray is solid but soulless. It is the color of business suits and of betrayal, but also of American ingenuity, color-blindness, and impartiality. Eyes of this color are usually referred to as hazel–they are changing eyes. Gun metal is this color.

  10. What happens to a grapheme synaesthete when they encounter a new language?
    I’m in Indonesia at the moment, and, although I’m not a grapheme synaesthete, I’ve certainly been dulled by the graphic aesthetics of the language.
    I think it’s a combination of too many words regularly spelt, a lack of consonant clusters, a preponderance of long words and a preponderance of long words with the same prefixes and postfixes.
    The Roman alphabet without accents doesn’t help either.
    I also remember moving from Portuguese to Spanish and feeling short changed visually.

  11. it’s just one more example of humanity’s insistence on imposing meaning everywhere it turns.

    Luhmann argues that meaning works as it does precisely because that happens, and only because it does. I translated a bit from Social Systems here:

    Systems that are tied to sense can never have a senseless experience, or act senselessly. … The process that is sense (Sinnprozess) thrives on disturbances, feeds off disorder, and is supported by noise

    At another place in the same chapter:

    Already at the level of neurophysiological systems (and perhaps one should add: in atoms and suns as well) there is a fundamental restlessness. But the entire world of social communication is based on the requirement that monotony be kept at bay, and that we can communicate only by changing topics and varying our contributions to them. When there is nothing more to say, something must just be improvised.

    That last sentence reminds me of old married couples in Germany. As the saying goes, they have nothing more to say to each other. They can sit in cafes for long periods in complete silence. Every once in a while, something happens in the vicinity that might invite extended comment. One of them may say: “ja, ja …” or “so, so …”, and nothing more. But at least that much has been said!

  12. What happens to a grapheme synaesthete when they encounter a new language?
    Yes. i wondered the same thing. Though, if Wednesday is fat, Mittwoch is not any thinner. Didn’t Witters ever go to New Orleans? What about Mardi Gras? ‘Pancakes, Hot Ziggety!’

  13. Noetica says:

    It’s just one more example of humanity’s insistence on imposing meaning everywhere it turns.
    LH, is the illustrious Apophenia thread playing in the back of your mind? Ah, those were heady days! I recently saw it referred to in print. Want me to track it down?
    But Tabellion is still unsurpassable of course, and will rise once more…

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  15. “grey is phonetically ambiguous, while gray is not.”
    ay(e), ayatollah, Haydn, kayak, Maya, papaya.
    Finlay, Lindsay, Murray, Macaulay, McKinlay, quay, Ramsay (Monday, Tuesday, …)
    According to “A Survey of English Spelling”, the only spelling that always represents /eI/ is <aigh>. So, graigh it is!

  16. Not to be too pedantic, but “grǣȝ” is actually written “grǽᵹ” in the OED, with an insular letter g [U+1D79] rather than yogh [U+021D] (likewise -ǽȝ and -ǽȝe should be -ǽᵹ and -ǽᵹe).
    (If you see a box for the insular letter g, then try installing and/or configuring your browser to use a font that includes this character, such as Charis SIL, Doulos SIL, Code2000 or Everson Mono.)

  17. emmling says:

    Others considered the difference to be that gray is a ‘warmer’ colour, or that it has a mixture of red or brown
    I certainly do.

  18. “pink”(5) is a very different colour from “pink”(1):
    “A yellowish or greenish-yellow lake pigment”

  19. I think a Pantone description would get rid of some of the vagueness in these comments. One picture is worth at least several words — though numbers are trickier, as the wiki article on Pantone says:

    Pantone asserts that their lists of color numbers and pigment values are the intellectual property of Pantone and free use of the list is not allowed. This is frequently held as a reason why Pantone colors cannot be supported in Open Source software such as GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) and are not often found in low-cost software.

    The Pantone company’s PANTONE 428 is so much more precise a description than ‘misty grey’ or -‘gray’. Nobody seems to be able decide on the spelling of the poet Thomas Gray — look at the first two on google’s list, but I’ve always felt that it was perhaps PANTONE 422 who wrote ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’.

  20. Strange that BrE shd have plumped for “grey”, isn’t it, since “gray” seems so much simpler.
    The house style of Spottiswoode may be relevant. Does the word appear often in the KJV or BCP? – since Spottiswoode was King’s Printer and these were, of course, dominant works in Victorian English culture. But I can’t think of a single biblical quote with “grey” in it.
    Most (?) prominent Greys in 19th C England were the political family, including the Prime Minister, so that may have influenced things, too.

  21. Picky: Strange that BrE shd have plumped for “grey”, isn’t it, since “gray” seems so much simpler.
    Strange — what, you mean in contrast to all our other intuitive, consistent and rational spelling?

  22. I suppose the current PM is also evidence of naming colours and tea after not very notable regimes.

  23. Not to be too pedantic, but “grǣȝ” is actually written “grǽᵹ” in the OED, with an insular letter g [U+1D79] rather than yogh [U+021D]
    “Too pedantic”? I’m sorry, that phrase carries no meaning for me. I have made the correction, and I bow in your direction with deep gratitude.

  24. But Tabellion is still unsurpassable of course
    I revisited the thread with much pleasure, but upon visiting our playmate Blue Genes’ blog I see it hasn’t been updated since April 19, 2007. I hope she’s OK.

  25. Oh, I think the Great Reform Act was reasonably notable; as is the tea.

  26. Once again the wonderfully subtle nitpicking on your blog fascinates, O Language!
    Here’s another nitpick: I was astonished to see OED put a full stop after the contraction Messrs, when Brit publishers put it after abbreviations only. Or is it that they once did, and now it’s in an optional phase because their editors too haven’t learned the distinction?

  27. Grrr! . . its!

  28. Gray was responsible for electoral reform and abolishing slavery in the same sense that Brown is responsible for saving Britain from bankruptcy and Big Brother — in other words, almost not at all. Both were preceded in the office by monsters, in a sense, but men who were much greater leaders.

  29. Damn, I meant ‘Grey’. I ought to have written a Pantone number.

  30. There is no good reason for adding this apart from the tenuous ‘grey’ link, the delightful writing, the many-hattedness of the man and the fact that it is a favourite quote of mine
    Extract from Fly fishing, Viscount Grey of Falloden, first published in 1899 several revisions up to1930. (Foreign Secretary 1905 to 1916).
    He is fishing in Scotland:-
    The pure act of breathing at such times seems glorious. People talk of being a child of nature, and moments such as these are times when it is possible to feel so; to know the full joy of animal life – to desire nothing beyond. There are times when I have stood still for joy of it all, on my way through the wild freedom of a Highland moor, and felt the wind, and looked upon the mountains and water and light and sky, till I felt conscious only of the strength of a mighty current of life, which swept away all consciousness of self, and made me a part of all that I beheld.

  31. See, his problem was that he spent far too much time in London. It’s not healthy.

  32. Since we’re being picky today, I’ll point out that it’s Fallodon (the stress is on the first syllable). Sir Edward’s most famous quote, of course, was the one on the outbreak of World War I: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

  33. This has been a fascinating threead for at least 3 reasons. First, it’s forced me to realise that I actually do perceive a difference between grey and gray. I lack the skill to put it into words as well as others, but it definitely has to do with connotations – grey is mostly a positive word and gray is largely negative. Also, grey is definitely lighter than gray.
    Second, I am NEVER going to think of the song “The old grey mare” in the same way again. Third, we have our own grey history in the political sense, too.

  34. Lawks, Earl Grey was preceded by one of the greatest leaders of British history, but that doesn’t argue against his own worth – his achievements somewhat dwarf those of Mr Brown’s predecessor.

  35. Stuart: we have our own grey history
    And from 1861 onward we have lots of full-length portraits of him, both on canvas and photographs. He was vain probably, but I don’t care; I love having pictures, especially of all the greys.

  36. The ones from Zeta Reticuli?

  37. Zeta Reticuli, wow that’s intense, man, all these things are linked.

  38. I find it somewhat bizarre that a lot of people tried to differentiate the spellings according to meaning
    I find it completely understandable. Many people, when presented with two options, believe that they must be different – his/him singing, for instance.

  39. Actually, I tend to think of “grey” as a darker colour than “gray” 🙂
    Apart from that, these are simply two variant spellings of the same word, and since I use Australian spelling, I prefer “grey” (rhymes with “they”).
    “Grey/gray” is one of those spellings that arouse debate in standardising English-language bird names. There is, in fact, a short discussion of this at Worldbirdnames (http://www.worldbirdnames.org/), which is devoted, on behalf of the International Ornithological Congress (IOC), to facilitating “communication in ornithology … through the use of a reasonably standardized set of English names linked to current species taxonomy.”
    One problem they ran up against was British and American spelling. As the website notes:
    ‘The names reflect the committee’s view that spelling should be consistent throughout the list. Easily stated and on its face obvious, this rule became difficult to apply where the same words have for centuries been spelled differently in different English-speaking countries.
    ‘The problem essentially involves British and American spellings, with some countries being on one side and some on the other. The gray/grey difference is the most pervasive and best known, but other variant words are color/colour, mustache/moustache, racket/racquet, ocher/ochre, somber/sombre, saber/sabre, miter/mitre, sulfur/sulphur, and perhaps others.
    ‘The committee decided to select one spelling for each variant word, because to state these words in the alternative in every case would produce a cumbersome list. But the committee encourages each author and publisher to select whatever spelling of these words is deemed appropriate (since that would undoubtedly happen anyway).
    ‘The spellings selected by the committee represent a compromise. Grey is used because far more taxa have traditionally used that spelling than gray. The list likewise adopts the British spelling of sombre, sabre, sulphur, mitre, ochre, and moustache, and the American spelling of color and racket. This tilt to the British side is justified by the fact that both spellings of every one of these variant words is considered correct in typical American dictionaries, such as the unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary.’ (Emphasis mine) Interesting rationalisation for what must be a rather touchy issue!
    On the other hand, if you check the corrigenda to the 2003 Howard and Moore world list of birds (www.naturalis.nl/sites/naturalis.en/contents/i000827/corrigenda%205%20d1r.pdf), you will find that ‘grey’ is being systematically changed to ‘gray’ (e.g., “Change Grey Tinamou to Gray Tinamou [note: American spelling = AS]”). This is interesting because prior to 2003 Howard and Moore was a British-based bird list. It has now tilted strongly towards American usage.

  40. I’m at present immersed in a nice warm bath of “Can You Forgive Her?” The colour word is gray. The hero is Grey. (OUP following Trollope’s spellings).

  41. I must warn readers in the strongest terms not to browse LH while bathing. I value my commenters and don’t want them electrocuted.

  42. Noetica says:

    I must warn readers in the strongest terms not to browse LH while bathing.
    OMG where’s Siganus Sutor?!?

  43. David Marjanović says:

    Astounding. I was taught grey was the British spelling and gray the American one, period, so I had no idea the situation was 1) much more complex and 2) so complex that some – many, apparently – native speakers get led to believe flabbergasting things.
    But then, of course, I’m always tempted to pronounce them slightly differently (both within the range of real-world English, but no single speaker would probably produce both nuances) simply based on the spelling. <sigh>

  44. marie-lucie says:

    DM: Astounding. I was taught grey was the British spelling and gray the American one, period, so I had no idea the situation was 1) much more complex and 2) so complex that some – many, apparently – native speakers get led to believe flabbergasting things.
    That’s what I learned too, not by rule but by encountering “gray” but not “grey” in American literature (both spelling are used in Canada, it seems). I can now feel free to go back to the “grey” which I learned earlier and like better.

  45. I’m with you, m-l, on the grey/gray business, except perhaps in the (now old?) expression ‘battleship gray’ — or was it ‘grey’?
    Probably one was U. S., the other Imperial & Commonwealth, as mentioned.

  46. michael farris says:

    I think my tendency, is to use gray and grey more or less interchangeably, though I think ‘gray’ might be more restricted to the color as a color with ‘grey’ taking over more metaphoric uses like ‘a grey day’ but I might be trying to impose order where there’s none.
    I think I perceive ‘grey’ as darker than ‘gray’ for whatever reason (I’m not a synesthete though).
    I have to say that I … appreciate the different overall impressions of written languages. I mentally ‘hear’ written language which is probably why I _strongly_ prefer scripts where the graphic form can be easily decoded phonetically (the other way isn’t so important for me).
    Also, I noticed a strange thing yesterday (when I arrived back in Poland after a week or so in Budapest). In Hungary it was easy to pick out Polish voices in tourist crowds but back in Poland at the Warsaw train station I kept hearing Polish as Russian. That is I heard part of a conversation and thought they were speaking Russian before I realized it was Polish. A couple of times these were non-native speakers (a lot of fast food stands are run by immigrants but not Russian immigrants usually west or south asians).
    My hearing is back to normal today.

  47. I see the difference as nothing to do with colour, just with letter forms. “Gray” is all open and American, and “grey” is all uptight and English. Ridiculous, huh?

  48. Noetica says:

    What happens to a grapheme synaesthete when they encounter a new language?
    For myself, the grapheme synaesthesia persists for any language written in Latin-based alphabet. Apart from novelties like gray, I have long ago made allowances for the standard English colour words. Green is not “natively” green for me, since it has no green letters. But I adapt. French vert begins with a green v; German schwarz is quite a mix, with the yellow s and z and green w and a predominating. It all requires small ad hoc adjustments; but these synaesthetic colours are not too strong in my case, so I manage easily enough.
    I’m sure a great percentage of word fanatics “suffer” from this syndrome. It is so close to oneself that it may not even be discovered. It took me some decades, and I was sceptical about it until I found that the colour assignments were genuinely consistent – some more than others, and some more salient than others.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    I am not a synaesthete myself and had never heard of this interesting syndrome before. But it occcurs to me that Rimbaud’s poem about the colours of vowels may not have been due to the drugs he took but to synaesthesia, perhaps enhanced by the same drugs.
    And what happens to a synaesthete who comes across an inscription (in an ad or whatever) where the letters are printed in different colours, or even (for very large letters) with stripes or other varicoloured designs?

  50. Noetica says:

    And what happens to a synaesthete who comes across an inscription (in an ad or whatever) where the letters are printed in different colours, or even (for very large letters) with stripes or other varicoloured designs?
    Much the same as happens when anyone encounters, say, the word BLUE printed in red. Skim this report of some empirical research, if you like. I have not read all of that one; but as I recall, reading is delayed and a little less accurate, and the effect can be accentuated under special conditions.

  51. it occurs to me that Rimbaud’s poem about the colours of vowels may not have been due to the drugs he took but to synaesthesia
    There is no real way to answer this, since we can’t fMRI the dead. But it has been suggested that Voyelles is really a metaphor, because later in Alchimie du verbe he says he “invented” them.
    There have been a number of scientific studies (including some by Ali G’s cousin, innit) that show that there is something there for some.
    The Mind of a Mnemonist is still an interesting popular account from the ’60s; I read it as a teenager back then.

  52. m-l is, I think, on the right track: the varying associations arise because we anglophones read each others’ literature. As a Yank of the Yanks, I would rarely, if ever, write anything but “gray”. But Tolkien’s Grey Company, for example. would look just awful as the Gray Company — I almost wrote “sound just terrible”, for the eye’s ear is a separate thing from the ear itself. The spelling of that phrase has become tightly coupled with its context, and interwoven with the many other contexts of the numerous works of British English that I have read in the original orthography.

  53. Noetica says:

    I almost wrote “sound just terrible”, for the eye’s ear is a separate thing from the ear itself.
    Yes indeed, John. Whence the well-known eye rhymes. Compare the powerful naive sense that the final consonant in stopped is normally a /d/, not a /t/. And on hearing the choir chanted, we might have a faint sense of alliteration because the written repetition of ch- lurks in the hindmind.
    See my suggestion above: “even if the sound actually represented is the same for both spellings”.

  54. on hearing the choir chanted, we might have a faint sense of alliteration
    Ooh, that’s interesting.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Compare the powerful naive sense that the final consonant in stopped is normally a /d/, not a /t/.

    Is it that simple? Is it simply a /t/? Because… word-initial /d/ is usually (more or less) voiceless in English, too.
    I can it pronounce both ways, and only the one with /d/ (that is, [d̥]) sounds natural to me, but it’s easily possible that most native speakers wouldn’t hear the difference. People from northern Germany (and most of the rest of the world, I suppose) certainly wouldn’t.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    stopped: In 18th century English this form was written stop’t, and similarly for worked as work’t, etc, to reflect the pronunciation. Where there was no change in vowel from the uninflected stem , such forms were later regularized with -ed, thus modern stopped, but if there was a vowel change, they preserved the -t after a p, as in kept from . kept and stopped end in the same cluster pt.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    kept from : keep somehow disappeared.

  58. michael farris says:

    “word-initial /d/ is usually (more or less) voiceless in English, too”
    Not for me (I’m a strong pre-voicer – an acoustic phonetician once almost drooled over sound spectographs from my speech and regretted that I wasn’t available for the research on English pre-voicing she’d just completed) “I can count the vocal stirations!”

  59. In my English, ‘dremt’ is as good as ‘dreamed’, though ‘dremt’ isn’t written. There are others I’ve long been aware of, but won’t come to mind now, dammit. Oh, yes: ‘skint’, which is Scots slang meaning ‘broke’. I’m sure it really means ‘skinned’.
    These are past participles, related to spent, spend; rent, rend — I seem to be on to something here. Can anyone see what it is?

  60. michael farris says:

    I’d say your dialect prefers /t/ to /d/ after nasals /m/ and /n/ with or without vowel alternation. I think that’s actually pretty widespread.

  61. Noetica says:

    Is it that simple?
    Yes, near enough for present purposes.
    In my English, ‘dremt’ is as good as ‘dreamed’, though ‘dremt’ isn’t written.
    There are American–Rest-of-World differences at play with several of these. On Wikipedia spelt is regularly changed to spelled by American revisionists. But M-W dictionaries do allow dreamt.
    Learnt is marked in M-W dictionaries as British. In my experience it is about as likely in Australian English as learned is (but it never replaces disyllabic adjectival learned; nor usually the monosyllabic form in learned helplessness, for example).
    Earnt is a form not allowed in either the M-W dictionaries or the Oxford stable (OED has not one instance in the entire text); but it is common in Australian English, even in academic writing.

  62. I would use either form in all these cases, including earnt, depending on the weather.

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