John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, 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.