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Some evidence that we might be drifting back towards Elizabethan spelling rules (i.e. "whatever, dude"):

[link] More raw and grizzly testimony expected in Dylann Roof case

[link] Just before Snyder held her news conference, Oakland police and fire chaplain Jayson Landeza took several family members to the grizzly site.

[link] A grizzly piece of evidence has been returned to the family whose loved one died in an officer-involved shooting in Wauwatosa in June.

Interestingly, the 1900 OED entry for grisly gives the usage note "Now only arch. and literary", and glosses it as

Causing horror, terror, or extreme fear; horrible or terrible to behold or to hear; causing such feelings as are associated with thoughts of death and ‘the other world’, spectral appearances, and the like. In mod. use tending to a weaker sense: Causing uncanny or unpleasant feelings; of forbidding appearance; grim, ghastly.

Wa the OED simply wrong about grisly being "archaic and literary" as of 1900? Or has there been a grisly revival, perhaps encouraged by the popularity of grizzly bears?

There's no question that the derivational source grise v. is obsolete:

1. impers. (it) grises me: I shudder with fear or horror, I tremble, am greatly afraid.
2. intr. To shudder or tremble with terror; to be full of horror, greatly afraid
3. trans. To shudder at with terror or abhorrence; to dread, abhor, loathe

The OED's most recent citations for grise are from 16th-century translations of Virgil, with most of the examples a couple of centuries before that. I don't think I've ever encountered it before.

Anyhow, here are a few more grizzly examples from recent news stories:

[link] You don’t get those commercial-perfect slices but rather a grizzly crime scene that people would be tempted to call a detective for.

[link] Since Tony spends his working hours examining evidence from sometimes grizzly crime scenes, you might think his emotional makeup has to be fairly serene and contemplative

[link] It's unclear if Paranoid was inspired by any of its contemporaries, but it definitely has a similar vibe to many of them in case fans of this new series want more crime stories of a dark, grizzly, and unpredictable nature once they've finished watching the first season of this show.

[link] In a diabolical twist of events, an exclusive has told of the under the cover real life portrayal of socialite and party boy James Rackover currently in custody as a ‘person of interest’ in relation to the grizzly murder of Joseph Comunale.

[link] In the fourth episode of ESPN’s OJ: Made in America, the grizzly murder scene photos are revealed.

[link] Several grizzly crimes on the Metro this year stoked rider fears and led to an increased police presence at stations and more patrols.

[link] Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a statement Sunday calling the incident “a grizzly and unnecessary accident.



  1. Bloix said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    It's pretty obvious that this spelling is from "grizzly bear" where the word means having gray-tipped hair, but is confused with the horrific nature of the bear itself (Ursus horribilis, terrifying bear).

  2. Rachael said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    I encountered the opposite error in the instructions for a baby/toddler carrier: it said the carrier is helpful "if your child is tired or grisly".

  3. Breffni said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    My sense of the meaning of "grisly" is influenced more by "gristly" than "grizzly". I expect a grisly scene not just to "cause horror" but to be gory.

  4. Shuree Nuff said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    Interesting etymology note in M-W:

  5. Shuree Nuff said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 9:43 am

    @Rachael, could you explain what you interpreted that instruction to mean? I can't make head or tail of it.

  6. Vance Maverick said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    Seconding Breffni here. Note that all the 'grizzly' usages you cite are gory, rather than the more supernatural horror of the obsolete OED usage.

    Also, assimilating one spelling to another is hardly anarchic or Elizabethan. Right or wrong, it's an impulse to simplify the relation of writing to sound.

  7. Robert Coren said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 10:01 am

    I've always liked the idea of someone being so horrifyingly irritated while on the highest hill in Berkeley, CA, that they could be said to be in a grisly pique.

  8. Keith said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 10:28 am

    I don't consider "grisly" archaic or literary at all. I can imagine how somebody could type it as "grizly" and accept the spell-checker's suggestion of "grizzly" as a correction. However, now that I have tried this, in Firefox, I am presented with both "grisly" and "grizzly".

  9. Cervantes said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 10:34 am

    Shoot me now.

  10. Cervantes said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    The above was not me.

    I think that almost nobody knows that there are two different words here. People presume that the grizzly bear is grizzly in the same way as a horror movie. There's no hope for restoring the distinction. This isn't about spelling, it's about semantics.

    [(myl) Indeed. That's why I filed it under "Eggcorns" rather than "Orthography"…]

  11. WritingSystemGuy said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    Oh my, it's an eggcorn! It takes the similarity of sound between grisly and grizzly and adds a semantic component of the scariness of a grizzly bear.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

    I agree that the modern non-archaic sense of "grisly" requires goriness. A sense like "terrifying in a supernatural/eldritch way but without actual goriness" seems very weird (and definitely archaic) to my ear. Trying to come up with an example of such a usage, I came up only with an archaic one – the early '70's Steeleye Span recording of "King Henry" (a/k/a Child ballad 32, which presumably exists in lots of textual variants), whose venerable not-composed-by-the-band lyrics include the verse: "And louder howled the rising wind / And burst the fastened door / And in there came a grisly ghost / Stamping on the floor." The line always struck me as odd, precisely because the word implied to me goriness, but the rest of the context made the ghost in question seem eldritch-but-not-gory.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    Eric Partridge says in Origins that "grizzly bear" comes from "grisly". The OED isn't having any of it. Etymonline notes that "grizzly bear" is "sometimes said to belong rather to grisly (q.v.); either adjective suits it".

    Rachael: I had to think for a minute to understand your comment. That sense of "grizzle" is very rare in America.

    Keith: People were writing "grizzly" for "grisly" and vice-versa long before there were spellcheckers. In 1977 The Written Word, by Bruce Bohle, warned against confusing the two words. I can't see the snippet at Google Books, but you can see it at this search page. As Vance Maverick says, people mix up homophones all the time.

  14. BZ said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    My favorite eggcorn (sort of) that I just found out about is algorithm which should have been algoritm or algorism, but the unrelated "orithmis" for "number" took over. The reason I started looking into the etymology was the fact that in Russian the word is algoritm, which is not entirely unusual as there is no "th" sound in Russian, but it seems like any word derived from "orithmis" tends to transliterate the "th" as an "f", not a "t".

  15. Rodger C said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I just thought of another one, the "grisly boar" in Longfellow's "Skeleton in Armor." When I was 11 I thought that was the greatest poem I'd ever read.

  16. January First-of-May said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

    Pretty sure it's "arithmos", not "orithmis".
    However, the rest of your post is correct (cf. "logarithm", which is an anagram of "algorithm" in English, but not in Russian, where it's "logarifm").
    Of course, it really should have been "algorism" in English (and, to an extent, actually was), and probably either that or "algorizm" in Russian; I guess something to do with "ritm" (English "rhythm", also unrelated) eventually took over.
    (And apparently the Russian was in fact "algorifm" until the early 20th century.)

  17. David Marjanović said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    The change from f to t for Greek th in Russian is due to Western influence; even teatr was featr at some point.

  18. Douglas Bagnall said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 6:43 pm

    @Shuree Nuff: Rachael's instructions were referring to the incessant complaining of an unhappy toddler, as seen at

    This is easily the most common meaning of grizzly/grisly for me here in New Zealand.

    It works with the bears too — it isn't that they have fancy hair or are gruesome; they are just so whiny and cantankerous.

  19. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 7:47 pm

    As an aside, can we take a moment to marvel at the complete lack of punctuation in "under the cover real life portrayal"?

  20. chris said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

    I expect a grisly scene not just to "cause horror" but to be gory.

    But I think people expect that of a grizzly bear, too, having lost the original etymology. Most of the terrifying nature of bears comes from their capacity for violence. They aren't (usually) uncanny or spectral.

  21. Bloix said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 3:19 am

    Douglas Bagnall – in the US, children don't grizzle. It's not that our children are better behaved, it's that we don't have the word for it. Grizzly bears are grizzly because the tips of their hairs are gray (or golden). They are grisly because they will maul you to a bloody pulp and then eat you. They do not grizzle.

  22. Matt Brown said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 6:31 am

    Have never had a flicker of doubt about this. Grizzly as in grizzled, which is closest to "beards" in my own semantic network of specific furriness; grisly as in premature ends through mutilation. Google Ngrams notes the use of "grisly" holding pretty steady in the BrEng and AmEng corpora and in the general "English" one, it actually increases fairly steadily over the last two hundred years, so not sure why anyone would ever think it "archaic".

  23. Charles Antaki said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 8:15 am

    Pretty far removed from horror, but still, there may be some influence from 'grizzle' as a verb denoting insistent, unhappy, low-volume complaining / whining, usually (I think) applied to infants.

    I thought it was a modern-ish locution, but Google N-grams suggest it's been declining since the 1920s (though my intuition that it might be more UK than North American seems roughly right).

  24. Ray said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    right now I’m grizzling over the discovery that I’ve been using “éminence grise” wrong all these years. I always thought it was a term of respect, to honor a grey-haired elder with repute (sort of like “emeritus”), but now I find that the “grey” part has more to do with the cloaked, behind-the-scenes grey area between having influence but not an official position. color me scarlet?

  25. Ian H said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    @Shuree From the OED: Grizzle (v) "To fret, sulk; to cry in a whining or whimpering fashion."

  26. Off topic: Fake priest, attracting mates, two-hour marathon, grizzly vs. grisly said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    […] its might behind the quest for a two-hour marathon. And watch out for the bears: There are "grizzlies" everywhere they shouldn't […]

  27. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 10:06 am

    The comic Teddy Bear, which I read as a child in the sixties, featured a character called Grizzly Bear (one of Teddy's cousins) who was always crying. I don't think I found the usage particularly odd then.

  28. Robert Coren said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 10:15 am

    Another non-gory example of grisly occurs in Roderick's song in Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore: "With a kiss, perhaps, / On her lantern chaps, / And a grisly, grim 'Good night'…" And any baritone worth his salt will make sure you hear those Rs.

  29. BZ said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    @January/David, algoritmi was the Latin form from the beginning, so it would have gotten into Russian from Latin. It is true that "algorifm" was used in Russian *also* before being standardized, but it was never the only form to be used.

  30. Shuree Nuff said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    Thanks to all for the explanation of grizzle as a verb. Even with many grisly years of language study, UK English exposure, and traumatization by toddlers, my grizzled head has never encountered that usage before.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 11:55 am

    Charles Antaki: I think you're right that "grizzle" meaning "whine" is more British than American. I couldn't find any examples at COHA, and only two at COCA, both from this century, so we may be picking it up from the British. It's not in the American Heritage Dictionary, though it is in Merriam-Webster, defined as "gripe, grumble".

  32. Brett said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

    I'm another American who has never encountered that verb "grizzle."

  33. Gwen Katz said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 3:15 am

    I ran into an example in a novel recently. The hero narrowly escapes a grizzly death, and not in the Winter's Tale sense.

  34. Robert Coren said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 10:24 am

    I had forgotten about grizzle = "weep, whine", but W. S. Gilbert to the rescue once again, this time from The Yeomen of the Guard":

    WILFRED: In tears, eh? What a plague art thou grizzling for now?

    PHOEBE: Why am I grizzling? I'll tell thee, Master Wilfred…

  35. ajay said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 9:53 am

    I’ve been using “éminence grise” wrong all these years. I always thought it was a term of respect, to honor a grey-haired elder with repute (sort of like “emeritus”), but now I find that the “grey” part has more to do with the cloaked, behind-the-scenes grey area between having influence but not an official position.

    If I remember my Dumas correctly, it's referring to the character (whose name I can't remember… quick google: Leclerc) who was a Capuchin friar (hence wore a grey robe) and was the right hand man of Cardinal Richelieu (and so deserved the same amount of respect as the cardinal himself – hence "eminence").

    Grizzle works well as a word for "continuous tiresome crying" because it sounds like groan + drizzle.

  36. Robert Coren said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 10:45 am

    I think one of the major points of the éminence grise — and I don't remember whether this point was made by Dumas, although my even hazier memory says it was — is that he worked behind the scenes, and so the "gray" can be taken to refer not just to the color of his robes but also to the "shadowy" nature of his power/influence. (That's certainly my impression of how the term has been applied to later examples.)

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