Gray vs. Grey

I’ve always had a terrible time remembering how to spell a certain word that describes a mixture of black and white. Should it be gray or grey? In a sense I understood that it depended upon geography. The adoption of simplified spelling in the United States through the efforts of people like dictionary publisher Noah Webster in the early 19th Century certainly had an impact. I uncovered a little mnemonic that helped me out. The word grAy applied primarily to America; the word grEy applied just about Everywhere else. That introduced problems and exceptions too. It seemed somewhat dismissive to consider the United States as representing all of "America" for instance. Also certain proper terms such as Greyhound were always spelled with an E regardless of geography. Still, I’d discovered a simple enough mnemonic even with its limitations.

According to,

Gray and grey are different spellings of the same word, and both are used throughout the English-speaking world. But gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all the other main varieties of English. In the U.K., for instance, grey appears about twenty times for every instance of gray. In the U.S. the ratio is reversed.

I’m not a grammar expert. Readers have to spend maybe five minutes on 12MC to understand that. I only wanted to know if the same ratio held geographically. I figured the percentage might be a little fuzzier because certain placenames would have existed prior to the polarization of gray versus grey between English-speaking nations. Either way, I was about to find out.

Gray and Grey in the United States

The United States’ Geographic Names Information System referenced 1,962 gray placenames and 550 grey placenames. That came a lot closer to 4:1 than the stated 20:1, although it marked a clear preference for the "Americanized" version.

Twelve Mile Circle loves anomalies so I examined the list of places in the United States that fell on the counterintuitive side of the spelling divide. The 550 were much more interesting to me than the 1,962.

Two Grey Hills
Two Grey Hills by Chuck Coker, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

Two Grey Hills fascinated me in particular. What a wonderfully descriptive placename even if the two namesake hills in the embedded photograph didn’t look all that grey or gray. The photographer noted that he’d captured this image outside of the Two Grey Hills Trading Post (map) in a remote corner of western New Mexico.

The trading post dated back to 1897.

… over a century old, and one of the few remaining historic posts on the Navajo Indian Reservation, is the primary source of authentic regional rugs and tapestries. Made of hand spun yarn from the fleece of naturally colored local sheep in shades of gray, brown, black and white, they are known around the world as the finest in Navajo weaving… Operating in isolation for over 90 years with no identifying signs, it is well known only to Navajos.

The price of intricately handwoven Two Grey Hills rugs can run into the thousands of dollars, easily.

Grey and Gray Everywhere Else

The Gazetteer of British Place Names included 24 instances of Grey and 11 instances of Gray. The overall totals were much smaller than GNIS because the British database included only populated places, not every conceivable geographic feature like its US counterpart. Britain certainly demonstrated a preference for grey in its placenames although nothing approaching 20:1 in my unscientific sample. Canada, however, surprised me when the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base returned 93 grey placenames and 112 gray, or fairly equal. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was given "the spelling system can be said to follow both British and American forms." That seemed to be the case for grey/gray at least as far as Canadian placenames were concerned. Maybe our Canadians readers can tell us if there’s a spelling preference for other usages.

Gray Rink, Gray Saskatchewan

Nonetheless I selected a gray in Canada, the small prairie village of Gray, Saskatchewan, which is not to be confused with Earl Grey, Saskatchewan about 111 kilometres farther north (map).

Gray is a small community located 25 miles southeast of Regina. It was established in 1911 as an agricultural based town. Gray and the surrounding area is home to over 130 people and attracts people from a 35 mile radius for it’s many activities. Like most small towns in Saskatchewan, Gray has experienced the ups and downs in it’s population base and is currently in a growth position.

The village used the Americanized spelling of Gray and referenced miles rather than kilometres on its website. I began to wonder if someone might have slipped the border a little farther north during the night when nobody was looking. Then I noticed that social activities in Gray seemed to focus on its hockey rink. Clearly, Gray belonged in Canada.

Next I conducted some serious investigative journalism as the 12MC audience has come to expect over the years. Wikipedia claimed, without attribution I might add, that the village "…has a hockey team called the Gray Hounds." This statement violated the Greyhound rule and required additional fact-checking.

I found no verifiable evidence for the existence of the Gray Hounds. Indeed, the Men’s recreational hockey team in Gray went by a completely different name: the Screaming Os.

Oh my.

10 Replies to “Gray vs. Grey”

  1. Canada has a disproportionate percentage of people of Scottish descent compared to the US. Gray with an ‘A’ is a common Scottish surname. Most likely, a large number of those Canadian Grays are tied to the surname, while the Greys with an ‘E’ are likely tied either to the colour or to former British prime minister Earl Grey. In regular parlance, ‘grey’ is preferred here over ‘gray’ (the use of ‘gray’ is usually an easy giveaway that whatever you’re reading was printed in the States). I mean, we are the home of the Grey Cup, after all.

  2. A similar situation exists with the word Harbour / Harbor. In general it seems that in the US the word is generally spelt without the U, whereas in other versions of English the U is present. In Australia there are very many towns and locations containing the word Harbour. In most cases it is spelt with the U.

    Most famous of all I suppose would be Sydney Harbour,151.2045358,16z

    However in the State of South Australia there is — a mess.

    Outer Harbor is near the city of Adelaide,138.4841383,15z

    and Victor Harbor is a seaside town not far South of Adelaide,138.6256408,17z

    Intriguingly the Railway station at Victor Harbor uses the different spelling.

    So, why are Outer Harbor and Victor Harbor spelt differently?
    The following extract is from an official State Government history

    “…..Later that year (1921) the State government gazetted all South Australian harbours with the spelling ‘harbor’ – including official reversion of the name to Victor Harbor. This is not an American spelling, but an archaic English spelling. People who grew up at Victor could attend the Victor Harbour High School – opposite the Victor Harbor Council – and travel to Adelaide by train from the Victor Harbour Railway Station. In the 1980s the local newspaper (originally named Victor Harbour Times but by then re-named Victor Harbor Times) ran a name and shame campaign against all instances of non use of the ‘official’ spelling. Consequently the colourful (colorful?) inconsistencies ceased -apart from the name of the railway station.”

    Then there’s Franklin Harbo(u)r,136.9502371,13z
    It seems the body of water includes the U, but the adjacent conservation park does not.

    Good grief.

  3. I always thought that “gray” referred to the actual color, while “grey” referred to the more metaphoric meaning (grey area, etc.), or names. I had a friend growing up whose last name is Gray and she always said “Gray, with an a like the color” when spelling her name.

    Interesting that it’s a geographical thing.

  4. According to its website, during the winter months Gray Saskatchewan offers community dinners on Fridays and community breakfasts on Sundays. I’m wondering if this is some sort of tradition in rural Canada.

  5. I looked up Gray, Saskatchewan on a map and thought it interesting the number of roads on 45-degree angles (northwest/southeast) in and around Regina and Moose Jaw, including the highway Gray is on. What is the significance?

      1. Indeed. You’ll find that a large amount of villages throughout the Canadian Prairies were originally laid out at 45-degree angles with their main streets perpendicular to the rail lines.

  6. I suspect at least a few of the Canadian “grays” are from Robert Gray, the 18th century American fur trader in the Pacific Northwest. I’m almost positive there are at least a couple places named for him in British Columbia.

    I also forget how to spell the word. I usually remember that gray is American thanks to Robert Gray. Still, I tend to prefer grey.

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