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The color gray in full bloom

By Anatoly Liberman


At the end of the nineteenth century, while working on the issue of the OED (then known as NED: New English Dictionary) that was to feature the word gray, James A. H. Murray sent letters to various people, asking their opinion about the differences between the variants gray and grey. A brief summary of the answers appeared in the entry, and one can read them there. Some contributors to scholarly journals found it necessary to publish notes on the adjective (the dates match the time of Murray’s correspondence so closely that coincidence can be probably ruled out). I will quote two passages pertaining to the subject (the spelling of the British originals has been preserved).

(1) “In A Descriptive Handbook of Modern Water Colours, by J. Scott Taylor…. London: Winsor and Newton, 1887, neutral tint is described as ‘A compound shadow colour of a cool neutral character. It is not very permanent, as the gray is apt to become grey by exposure’. Has anyone besides this author ever made a distinction of meaning between gray and grey? I do not know how the distinction is to be converted in speaking unless the words are differently pronounced” (1897).

(2) “I may be held as hypocritical in raising as a moot point a question regarding the impressions given to the mind by the term grey or gray; but there is a blue tone that has no other word to convey it to the ordinary reader’s imagination than gray, which, according to one dictionary, means ‘a mixture of black and white; an ashy colour’. Painters and color scientists having recognised the difficulty, overcome it by interchanging the vowels. Thus, in works on painting, grey expresses the mixture of white and black, or black and any other colour; gray is used for a mixture of white and blue…. I venture to solicit an opinion on the suggestions (a) that henceforward gray be used by careful writers to express a tone of blue; grey, a shade of black…” (1899).

One can see that the two authors offer different solutions. It would be instructive to hear from artists among our readers whether they differentiate between gray and grey and, if so, whether they agree with the descriptions made more than a hundred years ago. According to Murray’s abstract, grey appears to some as being “more delicate,” while gray is called “warmer” (this is what several answers he received amounted to). Nowadays, gray is the usual spelling in American English, while grey is British, except, of course in family names (consider Dorian Gray). Grey predominated in England around 1900 and is the main entry in most British dictionaries (gray see grey).

Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554)
Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554)

We witness an amusing case of language creating reality rather than being its mirror. The existence of two variants—gray and grey—is an accident of chaotic English spelling, but, since two written forms exist in English, some speakers ascribe different meanings to them and even “feel” that grey refers to a more delicate or less warm tone. The word has been known since the Old English period. It was spelled græg (the vowel æ designated a sound resembling Modern Engl. a in bag, but protracted; final g resembled y in Modern Engl. yes). The cognates of gray exist everywhere in Germanic (only the Gothic form has not been attested). Since all of them once ended in -w rather than -g, the protoform remains a matter of debate, and we will pass it over. Outside Germanic, Latin ravus “gray; tawny” (like græg, it had a long vowel in the root) resembles græg. However, it lacks initial g-, supposedly, because the original, unrecorded form gravus lost it. The vowels—Latin long a and Old Engl. long æ, from long e—do not match either, so that perhaps græg and ravus look alike by chance. Those who enjoy such riddles will find evasive answers in dictionaries and will not learn more than what has been said here.

The great question of etymology is why a certain combination of sounds has the meaning ascribed to it. Why does gray mean “gray”? Apparently, when color names were coined, they referred to some visible objects. Consider the adjective ashen, compounds (or phrases) like sky blue and peach colored, and idioms like black as hell or red as a rose. Sometimes we can “decipher” such adjectives. For example, green has the same base as grow and grass, so that green was probably understood as the color of vegetation, which makes excellent sense. What then is gray around us? The sky at daybreak, ashes, the fur of the hare in summer and of the wolf in all seasons, cats in the dark, sparrows and many other birds, old stones, old people’s hair…. None of those words (dawn, hare, hair, wolf, etc.) resembles gray. When there is a connection (as in Icelandic, between gray and a participle describing dawn), the path is from the color to the appearance of the sky, not the other way around.

Both old usage and cognates produce an unexpected puzzle. A thousand years ago, weapons, armor (swords, spearheads, coats of mail), and glass were sometimes called gray. Iron is indeed gray, but swords are and were usually described as gleaming and shiny. It is odd to read in Chaucer hire eyen grey as glas (“her eyes gray as glass”). A common Latin gloss of Old Engl. græg was glaucus. In Modern English, glaucous is defined as “dull-green,” and its Latin and Greek etymon as “bluish-green.” Too much importance should not be attached to such glosses, because English speakers may not have been able to find an exact Latin equivalent of their word and because, when it comes to translation, the existence of hues makes some color names ambiguous.

Poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
Poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Latin ravus, the only promising look-alike of gray, turned out to be an uncertain cognate of the Germanic adjective. As a small comfort, it should be noted that gray is possibly related to a group of Lithuanian and Slavic words meaning “to see” (Russian zret’, etc.). We may wonder how such an idea could even be considered by sober and cautious scholars. What unites sight and the color gray? But if gray has a shiny connotation, the idea begins to have some appeal. Although I am not enthusiastic about the gray-zret’ nest, we need not dismiss its existence out of hand. As I sometimes do at the end of my short essays, here too I would like to offer an audacious hypothesis. On the Internet, the writer can always apologize and make corrections after the event. While listing gray objects in the world around us (hares, wolves, ashes, and so forth), I skipped silver, which I left for the denouement. If one of the connotations of gray was, among others, “like silver” (and gray hair is occasionally compared to silver), the color gray, in addition to describing dirt, as it occasionally did in Old English, could also refer to such pleasing objects as silver rings and silver necklaces; hence the sheen that would fit glass and swords.

My subject is far from exhausted. Strangely, many Germanic color names were borrowed into the Romance languages. Equally strange is the fact that a word like French gris “gray,” usually believed to be a loanword from Germanic, also begins with gr-; yet it is not related to gray. Moreover, Engl. grisly is cognate with neither French gris nor Engl. gray, but it returns us to the pair discussed in the first post of this series: Old Norse grár “gray” and “horrifying” (that is, “grisly”). As announced a month ago, gray has plenty of shades, for gray is all linguistic theory but golden is the living tree of language.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Lady Jane Grey. Digital ID: 1249023. New York Public Library. (2) Thomas Gray. Digital ID: 1247591. New York Public Library.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    I think that part of the different associations of gray and grey is that people in the anglophone countries meet them in different contexts, namely those of British (or Commonwealth) and American writing. As an American who reads a good deal of non-American literature, battleship grey looks very odd to me, as I think of that as a distinctly American notion; on the other hand, to read of Tolkien’s Gray Company (a group of Elves) would be equally bizarre.

  2. Peter Maher

    Related matters: Chaucer”s “hire eyen grey as glas (her eyes gray as glas)” … GLAS in Germanic meant ‘amber’ and was applied to what we call glass only after contact with the Roman world. The two substances are warm to the touch and molecularly similar. Electron is Greek for amber and was chosen to name electro-magnetic phenomena. Rub amber with soft wool and it will become a magnetic for iron filings. Translucence is part of the deal. Then there’s French ambre grise ‘grey amber’. (Arabic ambra ‘amber’). Amber in Danish is rav. Cf. Latin rauus ‘tawny’. — Electricity, Perfume, glass, amber… An intriguing, intricate subject.

  3. Masha Bell

    Trying to make sense of English spelling, phonically or etomologically, is never easy, because it was often treated in a very cavalier fashion by scribes and printers: http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/history-of-english-spelling.html. [Ay] is the dominant spelling for the /ai/ sound in words endings, but with quite a few exceptions:
    Bay, bray, clay, day (Monday – Sunday, midday, today, yesterday),
    fray, gay, hay, lay, may, okay, pay, play, pray, ray, say, slay, spray, stay, stray, sway, tray;
    array, astray, away, betray, decay, delay, dismay, display.
    They, grey, hey, convey, obey, survey.
    Neigh, sleigh, way/whey/weigh.
    Ballet, beret, bouquet, buffet, duvet, chalet, crochet.
    Café, cliché, matinée. Sundae.

  4. Bobb Drake

    I am American and have always spelled the color as “grey”. Perhaps this is also because in my dialectal region there is no distinction between “a” and “e” in many instances (e.g. beg and bag are pronounced the same). “Gray” has always seemed a spelling that has been propagated by Crayola.

  5. Tom Beckwith

    Personally I use gray for the darker shades (more black) and grey for the lighter shades (more white).

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