All the Grays

via Daily Prompt: Gray

Grey. It’s a simple word, that describes the color of the sky on an overcast day.

But wait! Grey is not the WordPress Daily Prompt I’m responding to here. The prompt is Gray – a fact that is quite telling, because gray is a word which does not have meaning in the English language, outside of the United States of America. Which is where I live. Outside of the United States of America, that is – ie, in that place known as the rest of the world.

Before I go too far, let’s just double check that I’m not making things up here. Maybe there are, universally, differing opinions on whether the word is grey or gray?

According to the site grammarly.com:

By the twentieth century, “grey” had become the accepted spelling everywhere except in the United States.

Here’s what Dictionary.com says about the two spellings:

….gray is the more popular spelling in the US, while grey reigns supreme in the UK. For centuries, the one letter difference between gray and grey has left people wondering if the two have different meanings.

They don’t. It’s the same word, spelled differently. As Grammarly goes on to say:

Here’s a tip: Gray is more common in the United States, and grey is more common in the rest of the English-speaking world.

Okay then. Or maybe that should be okey, depending on where you live.

So this is an interesting prompt. Given that a one word prompt is supplied with no context, what is someone who is not from the U.S.A to make of this word? That it’s grey, spelled wrongly? What’s the best way to respond to this if it’s not actually your language?

Of course, the strange thing about my reaction to this “misspelling” is that there are lots of English words that are spelled differently between English speaking countries – usually, between the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Take colour, for example, which is spelled color in the U.S. I accept that these are just variations of the same word. If WordPress had put color up as a prompt, it would not have occurred to me to comment on the spelling at all.

So what is it about grey v gray that got me seeing red?

I think it’s because it’s only four letters long, so the variation in the spelling seems more significant. As noted above, Dictionary.com says the one letter difference between gray and grey has left people wondering if the two have different meanings. 

I think that’s quite reasonable. After all, one letter can make a big difference: try mixing up pray and prey.

So no, grey and gray don’t have different meanings. I understand that in principle, but I’m attached to grey being the correct spelling of the colour that’s half way between black and white. I don’t like replacing it with gray, because that just feels like bad spelling. But the prompt was gray. So I will write about gray.

Here in Australia, gray can be a name, and I do know of a few Grays.

*

Gray was the name of the family Doctor I used to visit when I was sick as a child.

Imagination and memory crash together as one gets older, so I am not sure now if it’s because of his name that I picture this gentleman with a neat grey beard. Perhaps his beard was actually dark brown, or black. In any case, I’m 99% sure that he did, at least, have a beard, whereas I’m also 99% sure that he didn’t wear the black top hat that, for some reason, insists on popping itself on his head in my mental image of him. Apparently in my mental image of this doctor from my childhood, a frock-coat and a hansom cab would not be out of place. It seems that I picture Dr Gray looking as if he had stepped out of a Dickens novel.

Is this all conjured up in my faulty memory because his name was Gray? Who can say?

What I can tell you is that the doctor’s offices were in a little double-fronted Victorian cottage, and that he kept dingoes as pets. When the breeze blew the right way, we could hear them howling in the evenings. The doctor’s surgery was only a block or so from our house, which was convenient for my mother, since she couldn’t drive, and whenever one of her six children was sick, this unfortunate news would most often be uncovered around 8am when they woke up, and Dad, the only person in the family who could drive, would have left for work at 6am.

Therefore, no matter how sick we were, if we were certain that we were too sick for school, we’d have to get up and walk to the doctor’s surgery.

No wonder I never take sick days.

I can also tell you that in Dr Gray’s waiting room was the most interesting thing I’d ever seen in a house up to that point. It was a huge aquarium, at least 3 feet long and about the same in height, that hummed and bubbled, pumping air for fishes of various sizes and colours that flurried around in the water. I was too young to have any interest in the women’s magazines on offer, but my time in the waiting room was amply filled in by simply staring at the fish.

When you have a bunch of brothers, as I do, there are always other stories on the peripheries of your memory, stories you were told second or third hand, sometimes years later, tales of the things that your brothers got up to, that you never saw and so have only ever pictured in your imagination. I feel as if there is a funny story that involved my brothers and Dr. Gray’s car, or his sons, or his dingoes, or his surgery, or a combination of all the above, but I can’t recall any more than that.

*

The other Gray I know of is an Australian Artist from the post-war period, Gray Smith. The only reason I recall the existence of Gray Smith is not because of his art, however, but because he was married to Joy Hester, an Australian modernist artist who is reasonably well-known within Australia.*

In an unusual gender reversal, which probably serves as an indication of their relative status as artists, there is not even a Wikipedia page for Gray Smith, while there is a brief entry for Joy Hester.  Hester’s body of work is unusual in that she worked mostly in brush and ink on paper, a medium that was not valued as highly as oils, and may be one reason why her work was not as well known as that of some of her male contemporaries such as Albert Tucker (her previous husband).

Many of the images she depicted were of women, or were about relationships between men and women, another reason why her work could have been viewed by some, particular given the period, as merely the frivolous doodlings of a lady artist.

Joy Hester, Lovers [II] 1956

Image: National Gallery of Australia

As for Gray Smith, I can’t tell you anything more about him, except that he fathered some children with Hester. Unusually, Smith suffers the fate that so many women throughout history were subjected to – to be remembered by the history books mostly because he was married to someone more famous.

*

So that’s it I guess. All the Grays I know of.

 Gray

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18 Comments

  1. The letter “a” is much easier to type. “E” is a couple of letters across and one letter up. That’s miles away. And why reach all the way across the keyboard to add an extra “u”? While we’re at it, let’s not bother with the double “ell” that’s supposed to be in so many words…
    “Grey” spelt “gray” just looks wrong. My spell checker agrees!

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  2. The English language is remarkable confusing and sometimes seemingly arbitrary. It’s amazing we all learn to read and write!

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  3. The different spellings of gray and grey gave me pause too, from an early age. One reason for this is that I am subject to a mild form of synesthesia. This means that I see letters, and to some extent words, as having colour. (I also see the numbers system, and other systems such as days of the week, as having a physical, sculptural form which I automatically visualize when thinking about them – but that’s another story.) I didn’t know there was anything unusual about this and only learnt the word synesthesia a couple of years ago, so the effects have always been with me and taken for granted.

    Mine is a very mild form of synesthesia* in which only some letters have colour but when one of these appears in a word it is likely to give the whole word that colour. For example, the ‘u’ in Julie colours that name blue.

    The colour attached to a letter obeys no logic that I am aware of; it just is that colour. If I tell you that ‘a’ is red, then you will see the problem I have with spelling grey as gray: gray means ‘grey’ but the word itself is red! On the other hand, ‘e’ has an indeterminate colour, sometimes being a sort of wheatey tone and sometimes being paler and duller, so that it goes quite well with the word grey which, overall, is actually coloured grey! For these reasons, if no other, I early decided that grey was the proper spelling for that word.

    American spellings, where these differ from their British counterparts, cause me mild irritation. An even greater source of irritation is the fact that, because the world of computing is dominated by American English, I often have to type words in their American spelling in order to perform some task. Spelling checkers and applications almost invariably default to American spellings and not all have a switch converting them to British English.

    There are also differences between British and Australian English, though these are not so obvious, at least in written texts. (This might make you a topic for a future post.) In Australian speech there is an unpleasant tendency to diphthongize simple vowel sounds as though the speaker is chewing his words. (The only other variety of English that I know that tortures vowels and diphthongs in this way is that spoken in Ulster.) I also blame Australians for initiating the wretched and increasingly common habit of ending a statement on a rising interrogative inflection, making it sound like a question or as if the speaker is seeking confirmation from the listener. Neighbours has a lot to answer for.

    *I have seen articles where people are described as ‘suffering from’ synesthesia. As far as I am concerned, there is no suffering. I enjoy it, in fact, as it makes words more interesting and prettier. The world would be duller without it.

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    • Ha-eeeyy! I take iss-ee-uuuw with your criticism of Aust-rail-ee-yaan pronunciation. 🙂

      (I don’t actually, I think you are entitled to say so since it’s true and I can acknowledge that you guys did develop the language first.) As an Australian, I must say, I enjoy the variety of different English accents. Even in my own workplace, in an office of only about 13 staff somewhere outside of Melbourne, I get to hear a Northerner ask if anyone would like a “cop o’tea” and a Londoner talk about how her mother used to hold a lot of par-ies. (parties, silent “t”).

      As for your synesthesia, I follow another blogger who also has this so I have heard this described before (strangely though, the only places I’ve ever heard anything about this condition is on her blog and now yours.) It would make for an interesting relationship with words – I’m glad that gray does not work, and grey is a kind of grey!

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      • I claim no ownership of the English language either personally or on behalf of my nation. English has travelled around the world and is the native language of many communities, each of which has adapted it to its own needs. As a result, English is now best considered as ‘a family of languages’ rather than as ‘a language’. Even in the British Isles, we have a number of dialects that, while remaining more or less mutually comprehensible, show important differences of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

        Speakers of all these varieties have as much right to their domestic varieties of English as I have to mine. I therefore do not say that there is anything ‘wrong’ with Australian pronunciation or grammar; I simply say that I do not like certain features of Australian speech. Australians have a perfect right to say that same about my language. If Kylie Minogue wants to chew her vowels or intonate a statement as though it is a question then she has a perfect right to do so. (And I have a perfect right to dislike it.)

        What I deprecate is the seeping of these alienisms into British English though, from one point of view, this interchange between Englishes is a good thing as it helps keep them all mutually intelligible. The Scandinavian languages were once closer together than they are today but are gradually diverging. It would be sad if, in a similar way, the different varieties of English were to diverge so that in a century or two Brits, Australians and Americans needed interpreters in order to speak to one another.

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  4. Ironically enough, I realized after posting my comment that, despite railing against American spellings, I had thoughtlessly used one myself: synesthesia. This word should really be spelt synaesthesia.

    Another thing that occurred to me too late was that I had written a post about my synaesthesia and that you might like to read it. It is here: Synaesthesia of the times.

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    • Thank you, I did read your post. Interesting, the other person who has described this condition didn’t describe (so I assume doesn’t experience) the spatial element to it as well. It’s fascinating that this exists and does not seem to be very widely known about – perhaps in the past, people have not articulated it well enough to others, to realise that their experience is not how others experience words, music or whichever element is enhanced for them.

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      • Synaesthesia apparently presents different features in different individuals. If I had told people that I could taste music or hear colours (I can in fact do neither of these) then my ‘condition’ might have been ‘diagnosed’ earlier but as its ‘symptoms’ are mild, I had no idea that it was unusual and only mentioned it for the first time a few years ago.

        I suspect that synaesthesia has always been present in the population but that it has not in the past been recognized as a specific condition and has often been dismissed as hysteria, over-sensitivity, over-active imagination, etc. French poet Arthur Rimbaud has a poem Voyelles on the colour of vowels (see here for French and English versions). His colours are different from mine and his synaesthesia seems more developed (‘better’, I would say) than mine.

        I also have an idea that synaesthesia is not a condition that you either have or do not have. I suspect that many people can experience synaesthesia-like sensations in certain conditions.

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  5. weebluebirdie

     /  May 4, 2017

    I do like your meandering tangents. Of course, it goes without saying that I am in complete agreement with your views on spelling. Don’t get me started on the replacing of ‘s’ with a ‘z’. And while we’re ranting, that letter is pronounced ‘zed’ not ‘zee’. Can’t rant any more; doing this by thumb on my phone and yherd@aol.com damned predictive text is driving me demented.😠

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  6. weebluebirdie

     /  May 4, 2017

    Damn. Delete that email. I don’t even know who it is😣

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  7. weebluebirdie

     /  May 11, 2017

    Well, if ‘yherd’ is being bombarded with spam emails, I don’t suppose they’ll work out why… But we’ve had our blether, so I don’t mind being deleted 🙂

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