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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Monday, November 29, 2010

A grey (gray?) area

Yesterday in Canada was our annual football championship, the Grey Cup. 

The trophy is named after one of our Governors General, but for those of us who are more interested in language than in football, the burning question is: why do we have two spellings for the colour grey? The Anglo-Saxon word, graeg, diverged into some forms with “a”, parallel to the evolution of the word “clay”, and some with “e”, parallel to the evolution of the words “whey”, “fey”, and … “key” (how annoying English spelling is!). 

Blithely ignoring both the lexicographers who favoured “gray” and also, more justifiably, the pundits who maintained that “gray” and “grey” were two different shades (!), the British public finally opted for “grey”. Americans prefer “gray”. Canadians use both, but “grey” more often. 

The family name, which can also be spelled both ways, was originally a nickname for someone with grey hair.

I'm curious to know which spelling you use. Post it in the comments!


  1. I (Canadian) use "grey". It just feels.... greyer, somehow!

  2. I, as a true alien, I have even missed there was a difference, so I'll have to make up my mind ... "gray", or "grey" ? It'll be a while ...

    Glancing on the right, to the "popular comments" column, I'll rather offer a belated comment: I would have very much favored the "Hallowe'en", as it shows more "detail", but I gave up; people - even in the civilized places of the world would most likely frown upon seeing aliens ready to "teach" them ... their own language! As Ms. Eliza Doolittle would say "... (to pay you for) teaching me my own language ?!" :)

    But why would I think English spelling annoying ? I prefer to think of it as being an archaeological field.

    Thanks again.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.