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Grey vs. Gray: A Difference in Color or Just in Spelling?

You may have noticed people sometimes interchange grey and gray, leading to confusion about which spelling is the correct one. But when it comes to using the word grey vs. gray, which one you choose comes down to your location and the specific person, place or thing you’re referencing.

Let’s set the record straight about how English speakers have used both spellings over the centuries and up through the present day.

How Do You Spell the Color Gray?

The correct spelling of the neutral color that exists between black and white can be “grey” or “gray,” with “grey” being more common in British English and “gray” being the preferred spelling in American English.

In color swatches and everyday language, you may encounter both grey and gray in references to the same color. For example, a North American might describe someone as having "gray hair," while a Brit might instead describe the person as having "grey hair."

English dictionaries, which cater to people in all English-speaking countries, typically reflect both as common spellings but will note this regional distinction.

The History of Grey and Gray

You can trace the origins of grey and gray back through the history of the English language and its interactions with other languages.

Both words have their roots in the Old English word "grǽg," which people used to refer to the color gray well before even the 12th century. Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th-century poet, use the spelling "greye" to describe the color of a woman's eyes in at least one Middle English poem.

By the 18th century, the famed British lexicographer Samuel Johnson had created a dictionary that included the word gray as well as grey, although he made it clear he preferred "gray" by giving it the more comprehensive definition. Despite this, use of both spellings persisted throughout the 19th century, with grey eventually overtaking gray.

By the 20th century, gray was the favorite spelling in the United States, while other English-speaking countries preferred grey — preferences that remain in place today.

Other Uses of Grey and Gray

While your general use of grey or gray may depend on whether you live in the U.S. or another English-speaking country, there are also specific instances that call for using one over the other.

  • Tea: The bergamot tea known as Earl Grey takes its spelling from its namesake, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. For this reason, brands market the beverage as Earl Grey tea even in the U.S., despite the preference for gray over grey in American English. It's rare, therefore, and not historically accurate for the name to appear as "Earl Gray tea."

  • Animals: Some animals have gray or grey in their names. Consider the gray wolf, the gray seal and the gray whale, but there are also grey mackerels, grey parrots and greyhounds. Greyhound can refer to the dog breed or the North American bus company. Both use an "e" instead of an "a" in their spellings.

  • People and brands: Proper nouns can take either spelling depending on their origins. For example, the title of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" book series by E.L. James references one of the protagonists, Christian Grey. The French liquor brand Grey Goose Vodka also prefers the spelling with an "e."

  • Common terms: People spell certain everyday words differently depending on whether they want to use the American spelling or cater to a British audience. Consider the words graybeard, graywater and gray matter, which people also commonly spell as greybeard, greywater and grey matter.

While people generally understand both spellings, these examples demonstrate that the choice between "grey" and "gray" often depends on your preferences and variations in spelling conventions between British English and American English.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Grey vs. Gray: A Difference in Color or Just in Spelling?

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