Q&A: Grey or Gray

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have two shades of grey…

Q: Hey AWC, do you remember that book, Fifty Shades of Grey?

A: Yes, it was torture.

Q: Well, only the scenes in that room.

A: No. Not just those scenes…

Q: Ah, okay. Well, anyway, I was talking about that and the TV show Grey’s Anatomy with a friend last night.

A: It must have been sparkling conversation.

Q: Sure. But we had an argument about the spelling. I was certain it was with an E, but she’s a doctor and swears the medical book is Gray’s Anatomy.

A: Have neither of you heard of Google?

Q: We DID look it up, but that seemed to confuse the spelling further.

A: Well, there is some grey area, depending on where you live.

Q: Wonderful.

A: Let’s deal with the easy stuff first regarding the books and TV show. Your friend is correct – the medical textbook that doctors use is Gray’s Anatomy – originally published by Henry Gray in 1858. The TV show was being clever (and probably avoiding some legal issues) by having their lead character named Dr Meredith Grey.

Q: So it’s a play on words?

A: Yes. As for Fifty Shades of Grey, well again, its central character was Christian Grey. The title is another play on words, albeit a more successful one in America.

Q: Is that because America spells the colour “gray”?

A: Yes. They’ve been favouring that since around the time Webster put his American dictionary together in 1828.

Q: What if I looked up “grey” in the modern version, the Merriam-Webster?

A: They simply list it as “a less common version of gray”.

Q: And I’m guessing the rest of the world spells it “grey”?

A: Yes. Although it did take a while to get there.

Q: History lesson?

A: Sure. As words go, this one is a granddaddy – popping up around AD700 as a colour and seeing its spelling evolve from “graeg” through to “grei” or “grai” by the Middle Ages.

Q: So when did it split?

A: By the 1800s, “grey” seems to have won out for world domination, despite the 18th century lexicographer Samuel Johnson on the record as preferring “gray”. However, Webster decided to honour Johnson and go against the ‘grey-n’ when he opted for the A spelling in that 1828 dictionary.

Q: But everyone else kept with “grey”?

A: Yes. And these days, the simple rule is “A for America” and “E for Everyone Else”.

Q: Nice. And proper nouns just go with whatever spelling they use?

A: Exactly. So you might drink Earl Grey tea and read about Dorian Gray.

Q: Or drink Grey Goose vodka while reading Fifty Shades of Grey?

A: That’s certainly one way to get through it. The vodka brand is French, hence the spelling.

Q: What about Greyhound buses in America?

A: Well, they’re named after an English breed of dog, so the bus company stuck with that spelling. It’s all fairly black and white.

Q: And what do black and white mixed together make?

A: They make grey.

Q: Yes they do.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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