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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gray is good


You can tell from the photograph above that I am a grizzled gentleman. Grizzled, meaning gray or graying or streaked with gray hair, comes to us from the French grisel, a diminutive that rises in turn from gris, gray.

I am not a grizzly, the common name of the Ursus arctos horribilis, or grizzly bear. The bear has brown fur with white tips, so the bear is grizzled too.

Grizzly is sometimes confused with grisly, from the Old English ­grislic, or terrifying. What a grizzly bear can do to a human being may be grisly to look at, but the two words have no connection other than similarity of sound.
There is also a verb, to grizzle, an old dialect word from Devon and Cornwall meaning to cry or whine.
If you are a devote of voodoo, you may possess a gris-gris (also grigri), a word of West African origin for an amulet or a bag containing herbs, small bones, hair, and other objects, worn to attract good luck and ward off evil. It can also be a charm performed by an adept, so you want to be careful not to confuse grizzled, grizzly, and grisly, lest someone put the gris-gris on you. Grizzling about it will not help.