Join 3,556 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Grey vs Gray
April 7, 2004 2:06 AM   Subscribe

To me, grey and gray are two different colors, not just two different spellings of the same color. I've asked a few friends, and so far I'm pretty much alone in my perceptions. Does anybody else think of two different colors depending on the spelling used?

When I asked my family, they also thought of the two differently - one was a lighter color than the other (but they couldn't agree on which spelling meant which). However, I see it as grey being a normal, everyday grey color to a grey tinged with blue, and gray as being more of a reddish tint. For the record, I'm 22, female, and from the Pacific Northwest.
posted by emmling to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yet another question for Languagehat.

For the record, I don't; and it has been my understanding that the two words are just variant spellings. I'm all for new color words, however—even though I'm a stereotypical male and can't tell the difference between "purple" and "fuschia".

Of interest might be Cecil Adams's response to a very stupid question in which he nicely summarizes some of the conclusions from Berlin and Kay's linguistic study of color terms.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:30 AM on April 7, 2004


It's a case of variant spellings, American and Commonwealth (ie UK English). Along with things like 'center' and 'centre', 'color' and 'colour' and so on.

I've never heard the variants being used to describe different actual shades of the colour.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:46 AM on April 7, 2004


I have never thought of gray and grey as signifying different colors, just two acceptable spellings. I think both of them can be applied to any shade between black and white, which in my mind means that dark charcoal gray (or grey) is something like #111111 and light gray (or grey) is #EEEEEE. If it's got blue it's blue-gray or grayish blue or gunmetal gray, it's no longer just gray (or grey, for that matter).

I thought this would be a good use of Google image, and doing image searches for each spelling in side-by-side browser tabs and then toggling between them seems to support my contention that gray/grey refers to a wide range of values.

Put in fuschia and you should get something that looks like #FF00FF, a very reddish purple.
posted by planetkyoto at 2:53 AM on April 7, 2004


"It's a case of variant spellings, American and Commonwealth (ie UK English). Along with things like 'center' and 'centre', 'color' and 'colour' and so on.—stavrosthewonderchicken
Not exactly. "Gray" and "grey" both regularly appear in American English while "colour" and "centre" do not. "Grey", however, is standard British English.

Sean Weitner, in FlakMagazine, agrees with emmling.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:54 AM on April 7, 2004


I'd say gray was lighter, though I couldn't say why.
posted by Orange Goblin at 3:28 AM on April 7, 2004


I would also say gray was lighter - silvery, almost.
posted by Ryvar at 3:52 AM on April 7, 2004


It could be a form of mild synesthesia, or just a cultural oddity. For the record, I see gray as being a lighter more metallic colour, but this is probably coloured (no pun intended) by percieved usage of the two words. My Halifax (UK) skyline is grey, but Alien spaceships and the iTunes default skin are gray.
posted by seanyboy at 9:19 AM on April 7, 2004


I've marginally equated gray with a lighter color... say #cccccc for gray and #999999 for grey.

Grey just seems a little more... grim. Grey would be used in Dark Night graphic novels, gray used in childrens book illustrations.

It's probably the sinister, shady look of that narrow-eyed 'e'.
posted by weston at 9:20 AM on April 7, 2004


I seem to recall a general rule of thumb that "Grey" is never a color, but could be someone's name, and that "Gray" could be either a color or a name. But of course, I can't recall where I heard such a thing.

This is a bit like the difference I hear in my head when I say a word like "paq", "pack", "pak", or "pac". Audibly, all of these sound nearly identical, but in my mind, some end softly, others abruptly, and the "ck" is a little more drawn-out.
posted by kokogiak at 9:55 AM on April 7, 2004


and gray as being more of a reddish tint. For the record, I'm 22, female, and from the Pacific Northwest.

Yes! I thought I was crazy, but that's the distinction I made too. It's only a personal distinction, though -- if somebody else used the word "gray", I would assume they meant something like #cccccc or darker.

... and I'm 22, male, from the Pacific Northwest. Say, you're not an alternate account I made for one of my other personalities, are you?
posted by Hildago at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2004


I live in Britain, so I think of "grey" as the natural spelling. For me, grey is a soft cloud-like colour, whereas gray is a hard pencil-like colour. (As to why .. well, I think I see grey as located precisely midway between black and white, whereas gray is slightly closer to black. In other words, grey is my default setting, because "grey" is the spelling I am familiar with.)

I think it must be a question of culture rather than etymology. I've never seen the two spellings used to denote two different colours.
posted by verstegan at 10:39 AM on April 7, 2004


I've studied colour theory, and they aren't two different colours. People are just reacting to the appearance of the word, although I must say that's a truly cool psychological phenomenon. I do it too - "grey" makes me think of a dark charcoal and "gray" would be light and silvery.
posted by orange swan at 11:00 AM on April 7, 2004


Merriam-Webster states that "grey" is a variant of "gray."
posted by terrapin at 11:03 AM on April 7, 2004


I also think of gray as having a warmer, redder tint, but grey is just... grey, somewhere between black and white on the spectrum. But I don't use the words to actually indicate any color variance, it's just the general impression in my head. So yes, in my mind they're two different colors, but I never use the words to mean that in the real world.
posted by lychee at 11:09 AM on April 7, 2004


Never heard that they were supposed to be diff colors, just different spellings. It wouldn't make sense to make them different colors as when one is speaking, the spelling is irrelevant and therefore useless. i could say, "she has a nice [grey or gray] sweater" and you wouldn't know what color I was talking about.
posted by dobbs at 11:20 AM on April 7, 2004


I don't sense a color difference, the same way I don't find myself dressing nicer for movies at the Loews Theatre. To channel the British, I find American usage of "grey" to be a bit twee.
posted by werty at 11:20 AM on April 7, 2004


As someone from the UK who now lives in the US I know that both are acceptable in US English, but I have a hard time writing 'gray', and never use that spelling. It just looks wrong to me. It never occurred to me that some folks might perceive them as different colors.
posted by normy at 11:51 AM on April 7, 2004


I would think the more interesting question is not whether the words actually mean two different colors (I think we've established they don't, from an etymology perspective), but why some people seem to respond to the words as signifying two different shades.

Eerily similar to those above, "grey" gives me the impression of the bluer, cooler shade. In contrast, "gray" makes me think of more red or brown shade although in general it's a neutral tone. I've even used one spelling or the other to distinguish what I mean in my own writing. I was never taught this, I've never heard anyone else specifically use one spelling or the other with intent to indicate shade, but I do "hear" one spelling or the other depending on the context in which the word is used as a descriptor. I have absolutely no explanation for this, it's just always been the "feeling" those two spellings engender for me.

For the record: I'm 20, I was born in the Pacific Northwest but was a travelin' military brat growing up and now live in Ontario, therefore I doubt it's a cultural thing, my parents and family are classic New Englanders, and I haven't lived long enough in Canada for my internal spell-checker to be influenced. I think it's just a wonky subconscious response to the spelling, perhaps the shape of the word? Interesting question!
posted by nelleish at 11:57 AM on April 7, 2004


For me, grey is yellower; gray is bluer. Probably because of the spelling: e is yellow and a is blue. (Or so my brain tells me.)
posted by Guy Smiley at 12:06 PM on April 7, 2004


My uneducated guess is that emmling's (and Hildago's) perception of a color difference has to do with the Canadian influence on the Pacific Northwest dialect. "Grey" is the predominant spelling in Canada. It could be that, over time, Canadian examples of grey have taken on a different meaning from the American grays. (And it's no surprise that the American gray is redder, bolder, and more Freedom-loving. USA #1!)

Likewise, I'd guess that verstegan's understanding of colour difference results from the tension between British and American English.

On preview: nelleish's experience might challenge my theory, but you can't help notice a pattern here: three 20-somethings from the Pacific Northwest all report an inchoate distinction between grey and gray. Ah, yes. Back to the lab.
posted by eatitlive at 12:08 PM on April 7, 2004


I'm from Chicago, and I always spell it grey. I don't really distinguish the two spellings in terms of color, though all this talk about it is trying to fool my brain into thinking it does.
posted by me3dia at 1:17 PM on April 7, 2004


planetkyoto: Put in fuschia and you should get something that looks like #FF00FF, a very reddish purple.

#FF00FF is magenta (equal parts red and blue, no green). Purples lie to the red side of magenta, and violets to the blue.

Handy primary color guide:
#FF0000 - red
#00FF00 - green
#0000FF - blue
#FF00FF - magenta (red + blue)
#00FFFF - cyan (green + blue)
#FFFF00 - yellow (red + green)
#FFFFFF - white
#000000 - black
posted by macrone at 1:27 PM on April 7, 2004


Strange. I'd never in a million years have guessed some people thought of the two spellings as different colors. But as nelleish says, this isn't a linguistic question so much as a psychological one (parallel to synesthesia).
posted by languagehat at 1:44 PM on April 7, 2004


seeing as i have a somewhat expertise in the color, i can confidently tell you all...

there both the same dang color.
posted by lotsofno at 1:49 PM on April 7, 2004


I also have slightly different perceptions of the two. In my mind, grey is for natural shades, the color of fog and rainclouds and rocks, while gray is for, if it's for anything at all, man made shades, of steel and roads. However, writing gray has always felt a little wrong to me, and I default to grey most times. It seems nicer, not as harsh. I could be happy in a world without gray. (California/Hawaii, 22)
posted by Nothing at 2:04 PM on April 7, 2004


More on this. A brief poll of friends offers the strangely disconcerting news that women tend to see the difference in terms of colours (blue / green / whatever) and men tend to see the difference in terms of shade (light / dark). Don't know how this works with mefi members, but interesting anyway.
posted by seanyboy at 2:41 PM on April 7, 2004


Odd, for me (21, California/Florida) it's the other way around - "grey" connotates the lighter misty shade, while "gray" seems darker and more absolute, battleship-like. Except when people refer to "the gray area", and then it's just halfway between black and white.
posted by casarkos at 3:47 PM on April 7, 2004


I've even used one spelling or the other to distinguish what I mean in my own writing. I was never taught this, I've never heard anyone else specifically use one spelling or the other with intent to indicate shade, but I do "hear" one spelling or the other depending on the context in which the word is used as a descriptor. I have absolutely no explanation for this, it's just always been the "feeling" those two spellings engender for me.

Exactly! Thank you, nellish, for articulating better than I could what happens in my head with regards to grey/gray.

Except for recent attempts to explain to my friends the distinction present in my mind, I don't go around pointing things out and saying 'that's a pretty grey-with-an-e cat' or 'I really like that gray-with-an-a sweater'. Nor do I think that way. Just some shades of grey are obviously needful of an 'e', while others are just as obviously the 'a' spelling.

Another perspective on this comes from the drawing class my dad teaches. The only distinction they had was that 'grey' meant tea.

Hildago, I've met you before, so therefore I can't be one of your personalities. I think.
posted by emmling at 3:58 PM on April 7, 2004


My Halifax (UK) skyline is grey, but Alien spaceships and the iTunes default skin are gray.

Best.
Colo(u)r.
Description.
Ever. ;-)

BTW, the female of the species tend to be more descriptive/precise when it comes to colo(u)rs. But don't ask me to dig up the research...
posted by i_cola at 5:51 PM on April 7, 2004


Women are almost never colorblind, while a small portion of men are. Additionally, there is speculation that there may be a few women who are genuine tetrachromats, meaning that they physiologically/perceptually see more colors† than the rest of us trichromats and dichromats.

I'm skeptical because I cannot understand how the human brain would have the structures to interpret a new color channel in the same qualitative way that it does the other three. But what do I know?

This may or may not have a causal relationship to the assertion above (about women being more aware of color); it's best not to speculate.

It is not the case, however, that the "bands" of the rainbow we perceive are culturally determined. Those bands are absolutely a product of our color vision. On the other hand, they (the distinct bands) don't actually correspond to a qualitative physical difference in the light.

† Not more shades of colors, but more colors.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:27 PM on April 7, 2004


Technically, I consider them to be variant spellings of the same color; but I consider "grey" to be more poetic, such as in Robert Browning's "Meeting at Night."
posted by bitpart at 10:57 PM on April 7, 2004


Reporting from a friend:

22-yr old male Pacific Northwester; grey has more of a blueish tint, gray a greenish. Also, they have different psychological characters to them, like some of the other people pointed out. Gray is more active and squirmy, while grey is more docile.
posted by emmling at 12:00 AM on April 11, 2004


« Older After being fired (not laid of...   |  I have two computers, one runn... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.