Grey vs Gray
The main difference between grey vs gray is where they are primarily used.
Gray is used primarily in American English, and grey is used primarily in British English (which is used in the United Kingdom and most other English speaking countries that aren’t the USA).
A common mnemonic used to remember the difference between the two is: grey is used in England and gray is used in America.
Grey/Gray can refer to different things:
It can refer to the neutral color that is an intermediate of white and black.
Or it can refer to feelings or situations that are considered dark, gloomy, dull, or boring.
Both words are pronounced the same and are merely spelling variations of the same word.
Grey vs Gray Examples
Both words can be used in differing ways, depending on the situation. But again, the only real difference between the two spellings is that the word is usually spelled “gray” in American English and “grey” in British English. With that in mind here are some ways that grey/gray can be used.
Both can be used as an adjective (to describe a noun):
She wore a gray hat that was overly large.
His mood was as grey as storm clouds.
Using gray/grey as an adjective is probably the most common usage of the word. Most people use it to describe something as being gray/grey in color or to describe a feeling or situation as being dull, gloomy, dark, or boring.
Both can be used as a noun (to identify a person, place, thing, or idea):
The gray in your dress really makes your eyes pop.
My favorite color is the color grey.
Using gray/grey as a noun is less common than using it as an adjective, and it typically refers to the color gray/grey (and not a feeling or situation).
Both can be used as a verb (to convey an action):
She felt like her hair grayed overnight.
His hair is greying more and more every day.
Using gray/grey as a verb is often used when referring to something as aging or diminishing. This is likely because most people tend to associate gray/grey hair with old age.
Grey vs Gray Exceptions
Normally, the words can be used interchangeably, depending on your preference. However, as with many things, there are some exceptions.
All proper nouns (a specific or unique noun) are an exception to the rule.
My teacher’s name is Samantha Gray.
You cannot change the spelling of a person’s name. It remains the same no matter which type of English you use.
My favorite type of tea is Twinings Earl Grey tea.
You also cannot change a company’s name for a product. It always stays the same as well. No matter where you buy Twinings Earl Grey tea it is always spelled with an e.
Also, there are other brands of Earl Grey tea, but since the name of the tea is based on a person’s name (as well as being the brand’s name for the product) it still cannot be changed.
Fun Fact: Earl Grey tea is believed to be named after Charles Grey. He was the Prime Minister of Britain from 1830-1834. He also fathered a reported total of 17 children!
Some common nouns (general nouns) are also exceptions to the rule.
For example, the word “greyhound”:
My brother’s dog is an Italian greyhound.
“Italian” is a proper noun and denotes a specific greyhound type, but there are many types of “greyhounds,” so it is a common noun. The word greyhound is always spelled with an e regardless of which type of English you use.
Also, if you are referring to the Greyhound bus line, it is considered a proper noun (and it still would always be spelled with an e since it is a name).
Fun Fact: the word greyhound is not based on the color of the dog breed (they can come in many different colors). It is believed to be based on the Old English word grighund which refers to the dog being a “hound,” and not the actual color of its coat.
Also, greyhounds are the only breed of dog to be mentioned in the Bible. Sadly, cats were not mentioned at all!
Another example is the word grayling (referring to the species of fish):
While fishing, I caught an Australian grayling.
“Australian” is a proper noun and denotes a specific grayling type, but there are many types of “graylings,” so it is a common noun. The word grayling (when referring to the fish) is always spelled with an a regardless of which type of English you use.
Fun Fact: the grayling is a freshwater fish that is part of the salmon family (Salmonidae). It is the only species of its genus (Thymallus) that is native to Europe. Graylings are also called the “lady of the stream.” Not quite as catchy as the “lady of the lake,” but still memorable!
Grey vs Gray Origins
The word is believed to have originated from the Old English word graeg. Throughout the centuries there have been many spelling variations of the word: greie, greye, graye, grei, grey, and grai to name a few.
Fun Fact: the first recorded use of the word as the name of a color (in the English language) was in AD 700.
While both words have been around for a long time, originally, grey was the more popular spelling. In fact, by the 18th century, grey was the universally accepted spelling of the word.
Then a popular lexicographer (a person who complies dictionaries) named Samuel Johnson changed this preference. He proposed that gray was the better spelling, so by the 19th century, English dictionaries used that spelling instead.
However, disputes continued to arise over the accepted spelling, and by the 20th century, grey was once again universally accepted as the correct spelling (except for America).
During the 19th century, American writers adopted the spelling gray (around 1825), and it has remained the same in America ever since.
So, in summary: gray is preferred in America, and grey is preferred in England (and pretty much everywhere else as well).
Grey vs Gray as a Color
While technically grey and gray are spelling variations of the same word, many people incorrectly believe them to be two different shades of the same color.
A lot of people think that gray has a cooler tone and a blue hue (or that it is darker than grey).
Many people also believe that grey is more neutral and has a silver hue (or that it is lighter than gray).
But rest assured, gray and grey do in fact refer to the same color. Gray and grey are not different colors.
Some of the confusion about gray/grey as a color comes from paints and color swatches. Many companies spell the word differently, which can lead people to incorrectly believe that they are two different colors.
For example, Sherwin-Williams has an “earl grey” and a “steely gray” as two of their paint color options. (They even have a paint color called “grayish”!) Also, even if one brand only uses one spelling, it still can differ from brand to brand.
For example, Glidden paint refers to their gray/grey color options as grey, but Benjamin Moore refers to their gray/grey color options as gray.
Fun Fact: Benjamin Moore uses the spelling gray for their gray/grey colors, but they have one option that is different: the color “greyhound” which is number 1579. Apparently, the word greyhound really likes to be an exception!
Another misconception that some people have is that grey refers to the color (especially when referring to artwork), and gray refers to a feeling or situation. But once again, this is not the case.
This might stem from the fact that a lot of famous artwork originated from European countries where the predominant spelling is grey. This, in turn, might have lead people to believe that this was the correct spelling with regards to artwork and color.
But (in America at least) the use of the word gray/grey to denote a feeling or situation is typically spelled gray. This may be the reason some people believe that grey relates to color and grey relates to feelings or situations.
Grey vs Gray in Fashion
Regardless of how it is spelled, the color gray/grey has had many roles in fashion throughout the centuries.
In the Middle Ages, gray/grey was the color of undyed wool. Therefore, it was commonly associated with peasants and poor people.
It was also worn by some monks as a symbol of their vows of poverty and humility. These monks (typically Franciscan monks with the Catholic Church) were commonly referred to as greyfriars or even as the grey friars. When referring to these monks, it is typically spelled with an e.
The 18th Century
In the 18th century, gray/grey started becoming a fashionable color for both men and women. Especially, for women’s dresses and men’s coats and waistcoats. Gray/grey also started being worn by nobility and the wealthier class.
The 19th Century
In the 19th century, gray/grey was still being used in fashion. Most fashion at the time was modeled after the fashion in Paris (for women) and London (for men).
For women, the majority of gray/grey was seen being worn by women who worked in workshops and factories in Paris. These women were known as grisettes and were considered working (and therefore lower) class. So, gray/grey was worn less often by the wealthier class during this time.
For men, the time of the gray/grey business suit had arrived. Previously, men’s suits had been more colorful (and jeweled). However, in the 19th century, gray/grey business suits became popular in London (and therefore everywhere else).
This was due in part to Beau Brummell. He popularized the “dandy” look as well as promoted sleeker, tailored, and simpler clothing. He is credited with influencing the arrival of the modern suit. Thank you, Beau!
If not for him the standard for men’s suits might have been much more extravagant than it is now. Can you imagine James Bond in a bedazzled suit? Thankfully, we don’t have to!
Also, during the 19th-century gray/grey became a popular military color. This was due in large part to it being much less visible to an enemy than either red or blue.
Gray/grey was the uniform color of choice for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Also, the color of the Prussian Army during the Franco-German War (which was also known as the War of 1870 and the Franco-Prussian War).
Even in modern times, gray/grey is still a uniform color option. The basic uniform at The United States Military Academy (more commonly referred to as West Point) is gray/grey.
The 20th Century
During the 20th century, gray/grey remained a staple for men’s fashion. The gray suit was popularized (especially in the 1950s and 1960s) by prominent men such as Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and even President John F. Kennedy.
Fun Fact: President Lyndon B. Johnson was the first American president to wear a gray/grey suit to his inauguration. It was an Oxford gray/grey suit.
The 21st Century
Nowadays, gray/grey is commonly associated with minimalism, monotony, intellect, and modesty. Think of the gray/grey pencil skirt and gray/grey suits as examples of the color in modern fashion.
Alas, the gray/grey suit is being replaced in popularity by the dark blue (navy) suit (in America at least).
Fun Fact: Many surveys show that most people’s favorite color is blue.
Final Thoughts on Grey vs Gray
While it can often be confusing deciding which vowel to use for grey vs gray, a common way to remember which one to use is:
Gray is preferred in America, and grey is preferred in England (and pretty much everywhere else as well).
Gray/grey can refer to the color (which is an intermediate of white and black) or feelings or situations (that are deemed dark, gloomy, dull, or boring).
The word is believed to have originated from Old English and can be used many ways in the English language (such as a noun, adjective, or verb). The changing of the vowel is normally a just matter of preference. Gray is typically used in American English and grey is typically used in British English.
As with many things, there are some exceptions to being able to switch the vowels whenever you want. For example, proper nouns and certain common nouns (such as greyhound and grayling).
With regards to the color, gray vs grey can be confusing due to the inconsistent use of a set spelling for the color of paints and swatches. Throughout the centuries, the use of the color gray/grey in fashion has been favored by different groups (from peasants to nobility) and in different types of clothing (from dresses to uniforms to suits).
Regardless of which vowel you choose to use, gray/grey plays many roles with regards to paint, fashion, and its different uses and meanings in the English language.
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