A Single Shade of Grey

My brother recently posted a poem my niece wrote about the color grey. She’s a gifted young writer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to share a young girl’s poem, but it does have some nice descriptions personifying nature scenes of ominous, building torment (can anyone summon storm clouds the way a twelve-year-old girl can?) and closes with the killer line “Gray is silver that is trying to shine.”

I liked the poem so much I want to congratulate my niece, but I worry that I’ll start quibbling over syllables and the use of the passive voice, the kind of criticism that can crush a young artist. I’d like to think I can resist my inner critic, but there’s no way I’d be able to resist calling her out  for spelling grey wrong.

I’m not being an anglophile. Most research indicates that Brits spell it with an E and Americans with an A, but saying that is like saying there are two sides to global warming and we’re just going to present both. No. At some point you have to say one side is right. In this civil war, the grey side wins.

Not that the battle isn’t tight. Grey comes from the Old English græg. Look at that vowel! It’s part A and part E! That’s how close it gets. That rune translates as “ash” from the Old English, so it’s an appropriate vowel for the word, but we don’t use æ, so we’ve got to choose.

I can’t pin down exactly where grey became gray in America. Maybe Safire’s Ronin can help me out. The still-missed William Safire went with gray for Americans, but I call on his followers, the Lexicographic Irregulars for any verification, even though I think he was wrong. My suspicion is that the culprit in the graying of grey is Noah Webster, who did so much to make American English what it is. Using his dictionary to make a more American English, he gave us the letters J and V, and he honored our honour and colored our colour, as well as centering our centre. He wasn’t right about everything. Island needs that S, and grey needs that E.

Because color. Of mood. (There’s another linguistic feud going between because and of, but I can only settle one conflict at a time.) Grey is grey. A is for apple. Don’t bite into a grey apple. Our lowercase e squints at you like a Doonesbury character, trying to define the nuance. A plays; E preys. A allows; e elides and eludes. A asks; E eschews.  A chaws, and E chews. A is clearly the country bumpkin of vowels, E the mysterious (though not as mysterious and “sometimes” Y) player.

As I’ve said before, shapes give words meaning. Gray looks gay. Gay is great, but it isn’t grey, any way you slice it. If we’re talking sexual orientation (it’s probably for the best that I could not get any “homonym” jokes to work), the colors of the gay movement are a rainbow, the opposite of grey. If we’re just talking happy, gay is also not that grey. If you go with gey you’re speaking in Scottish, which doesn’t prove my point, but I think the gay thing covers it. Same thing goes for Gary. Just not a grey name, while Gerri, who is that chick? Why did her parents name her that? It’s a little androgynous, very shades of …Wait, am I just writing this paragraph to piss people off? I think I’ve made my point and then gotten off track.

I stick by my stronger arguments, and another one. That self-published book. You know the one. They spend the last two years tittering over it. That spells it Grey.  What dictionaries and linguists cannot achieve, erotic novels can.

It’s got to be grey. There have been other word battles through the ages. Ketchup vs. Catsup has a storied battle, with commerce and government conspiring to declare a clear winner. Who could forget the “Whoop There It Is” vs. “Woot There It Is” rap battle? Okay, who can remember? There was a battle, and “Whoop” won. Now it’s time for another decisive winner.

It’s as clear as black-and-white. I give it to grey.

Close Menu