February 20, 2009

Wordplay in Gray February

Of wordplay there is no end and Roy Blount Jr. brings the enthusiasm of an amateur in his tasty "Alphabet Juice". Note with what relish he handles the long-standing controversy between gray and grey:

To me, grey looks greyer. The Middle English form (AHD) was grei. And the British, who see a lot of it nearly every day, prefer grey. OED points out, however, that Dr. Johnson's dictionary spelled it gray, that grey is "phonetically ambiguous (I suppose it could be mispronounced to rhyme with key, by someone unfamiliar with bey, fey, hey, lei, obey, prey, they, threy, whey, and oy vey), and that there are other linguistic arguments for the -ay spelling.

OED also notes that some nineteenth-century printers asserted that grey and gray were not quite the same color: the former being only a mixture of black and white, while the latter might be lighter or warmer - or "any broken color of a cool hue," according to Field's Chromotography (1885), which insisted that "the distinction between grey and gray should be carefully observed." A voice in the wilderness.


Meredith said...

I have to read this book! I've always thought that grey looker greyer than gray - maybe because I have an association of red with A and blue with E. "Sea Fever" isn't the same without grey:

"And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking."

Gray - cement, over-boiled vegetables, moral ambiguity.

Grey - slate, rain, doves, eyes, elven cloaks, the sea.

TS said...

Yes for me I think the 'a' in gray gives it a gayer feeling that is less in keeping with gray/grey's lack of exuberance. I was also surprised to see that Dr. Johnson suggested "gray" since I always figured that spelling was an American tic! Between this book and "The Secret Life of Words" I'm definitely learning a lot of etymologies.

Enbrethiliel said...


In one of her novels about the Austin family, Madeleine L'Engle has her narrator engage in similar musings about spelling over a character named Zachary Gray who has grey eyes. Ironically, in another book, she calls him Zachary Grey. An oversight? Or an indecisive subconscious mind?