John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An unbearable scene

It was one of the editors I hired who, a while back, made sure that you did not read a description of a homicide as a grizzly scene.

A grizzly is North American brown bear (Ursa arctos) so called because its brown fur has white tips. The word derives from grizzle — gray hair. Thus you would describe the author of this blog as a grizzled editor, among other terms. The etymology of grizzle is uncertain, the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The word the writer was reaching for is grisly — terrifying, horrible, ghastly. It derives from the Old English grislic, allied to agrisan, to terrify.


  1. A particularly meaty scene could be gristly.

  2. Indeed, I remember seeing in a published book (of many years ago, so not a victim of modern editorlessness) the term "grisly nut of flesh". Took me a while to figure out that "gristly" was intended.

  3. This post sounds like the sort of everyday conversation at our house! Reminds me of that book Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. Maybe I'll pick that one up for a second read.

  4. I have seen some pretty grisly editing in my time, by grizzled veterans and gristle-bound gym puppies, but my all-time favorite was a description in a story of someone who was "not a pre-Madonna."

  5. My favorite tale of Homonyms Gone Wild was the story of a reporter who was traveling on assignment one April and returned to her hotel to find an urgent phone message from her editor, informing her that she had won a "poulet surprise."