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Grisly bears and grizzly murders?

Most of us would agree that English spelling can be a minefield: one reason for this is that there are numerous words which sound the same when you say or hear them but which are spelled differently and which have completely different meanings: a few examples are pour/pore, flower/flour, and sight/site. Such words are known as homophones: they’re a rich source of confusion and often produce unintentionally amusing or incongruous effects.

Here’s a wonderful example of a homophonous mix-up, between the words grizzly and grisly, in the following headline, taken from a news website in June 2012 – it definitely gave rise to some amusement (and not a little exasperation) in this reader, at least:

Transatlantic hunt for Canadian in grizzly murder

There’s no need to give any specifics of the crime here, but the murder referred to, judging from reports in the media, sounded pretty gruesome – in fact, downright grisly. Although subeditors are known for their love of puns, I doubt that the journalist believed that the perpetrator of the deed was a large brown ursine animal (although such a storyline actually featured in an episode of CSI Miami!).

It’s by no means rare to see the words grizzly and grisly being mixed up: another similar-sounding word, gristly, is also sometimes misused. I have to admit, I really can’t bear [sorry!] mistakes like this.  It seemed a prime candidate for one of my confusable blogs, which try to unpick the differences between such words, help to prevent similar howlers from occurring in the future, and, in the process, also prevent me from feeling like a bear with a sore head.

Several shades of grey

The adjective grizzly* means ‘grey or grey-haired’, as in the following example:

On the bus there was a crazy man beside me with a grizzly beard and crumpled pieces of paper poking out of the many pockets in his camouflage jacket.

It’s from grizzle, an adjective meaning ‘having dark and white hairs mixed’, and derived from the Old French word  grisel, from gris, ‘grey’.

However, we now usually encounter grizzly as a noun, referring to a type of large American bear (also called a grizzly bear), whose fur is typically brown with white tips:

The last grizzly in California is believed to have been shot in the 1920s.

Grisly mistakes. . .

The confusion between grizzly and grisly seems to have a long history. According to Wikipedia, when the American naturalist George Ord (1781-1866) gave the bear its Latin name in 1815, he misunderstood the word grizzly to mean ‘grisly’ (i.e. ‘horrific)’, and thus named the animal Ursus arctos (bear) horribilis (terrifying).

Here are just a couple of examples, taken from the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) of grizzly being wrongly used (i.e. the writer means grisly). In fact, the OEC has 19 examples of ‘grizzly murder’, 12 of ‘grizzly death’, and 10 of ‘grizzly scene/sight’:

X  Now the company wants to expand into the grizzly business of clearing up murder scenes.

X  I began to resign myself to a slow and grizzly death by torture.

So what does grisly mean, and how does it differ from grizzly? Grisly is an adjective with a very long history: it derives from an Old English word, grislic, which means ‘terrifying’. Today, grisly means ‘causing horror or disgust’.  The OEC evidence reveals that grisly is typically used to describe killings, murders, deaths, sights, and discoveries. Here are some instances of correct usage:

    A grisly slaying on a Greyhound bus has prompted calls for tighter security on Canadian bus lines.

   √  The grisly discovery of a young woman’s corpse was made by a member of the public.

The evidence also shows that, while grizzly is often misused when grisly is intended, there are only 4 examples of ‘grisly bear’.

Errors that are hard to swallow?

Let’s bring a third word into the mix: the adjective gristly means ‘full of, or consisting of, gristle’. Gristle is that yucky chewy stuff that you find in meat, and is another word of Old English origin, though it’s not related to grisly. Gristly has far fewer examples overall on the OEC (only 88, compared with 1,420 for grizzly and around 3,700 for grisly) and is less likely to be confused with either of the two other words, but mix-ups occasionally occur:

His enormous beard and considerable size indicate that he might actually co-habit a cave with several gristly bears.

This church was the scene of a particularly gristly massacre in the 15th century.

To counter these mistakes, here are two cases where the writers have plumped for the correct word:

√  The steak was gristly and pretty tasteless.

Food at school was vile: gristly stews, watery cabbage, semolina, and spotted dick drowned in custard.

Finally, here’s a handy summary to help you remember the distinctions between the different words:

  • grizzly = grey (adjective) or a big brown bear (noun)
  • grisly = disgusting, horrific, or gruesome
  • gristly = full of tough inedible tissue

*NB: there’s another adjective spelled exactly the same as grizzly but with a different meaning:  this grizzly  refers to a baby who cries fretfully, and derived from the verb ‘to grizzle’, which has no connection to bears, grey hair, tough meat, or disgusting scenes (though a new parent might find changing their baby’s nappies a rather grisly experience at first…)

Anna’s sick with a heavy cold: she is grizzly, clingy, unsociable.