The Grammarphobia Blog

A grizzly of a different color

Q: Here’s a question you can get your teeth into. An article in the Guardian about the eating habits of the Neanderthals included this sentence: “There are other, equally valid but decidedly more grizzly explanations to account for those microscopic fragments of herbs and plants found in Neanderthal teeth.” Any comment?

A: Well, the Neanderthals may have eaten like bears, but the Guardian writer probably meant “grisly.” (As one reader commented on the Guardian’s blog, “Bear with it.”)

These are two very different words. “Grizzly” essentially means gray or grayish (the grizzly bear is named for its color). The venerable old adjective “grisly” originally meant “scary” rather than what it means to most of us today—“gruesome.”

Let’s take a look at the histories of both, starting with the older one.

“Grisly” was first recorded in English sometime before the year 1150, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It came from an earlier word (grislic) in Old English, which came in turn from a verb, “grise,” which died out in the 1500s and meant to shudder with fear.

(This word “grise,” by the way, may be related to another old verb, “grue”—to shudder, to feel terror or horror—which is the source of “gruesome.”)

Originally, the OED explains, “grisly” meant “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 more recent times, the dictionary adds, it has meant “causing uncanny or unpleasant feelings; of forbidding appearance; grim, ghastly.”

In modern usage, according to standard dictionaries, “grisly” is often used in the sense of gruesome or repugnant.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes this among its “grisly” definitions: “inspiring disgust or distaste.”

The online version of the dictionary includes these examples: “The jurors saw grisly photos of the crime scene” … “recounted the visit to the murder scene in grisly detail.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “grisly” as meaning “causing repugnance; gruesome.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that in 1900 the OED labeled “grisly” archaic or literary, but since then “its fortunes have recovered strongly, and it is now firmly part of the general language.”

The adjective “grizzly” is a horse of a different color—gray, to be specific. Since it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says,  it has meant “grey; greyish; grey-haired; grizzled.”

An earlier adjective, “grizzle” (1425), meant gray in color, and an even earlier noun form (1390) meant a gray-haired old man.

The phrase “grizzly bear” dates from early 19th-century North America. The OED defines it as “a large and ferocious bear, Ursus horribilis, peculiar to the mountainous districts of western North America.”

A member of the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first to record the bear’s name.  In 1807 Patrick Gass, in a journal of the expedition, wrote: “The bears from which they get these skins are a harmless kind, and not so bold and ferocious as the grizly and brown bear.”

“Grisly” and “grizzly” not only have different meanings, but they also have different ancestors.

“Grisly” is from Germanic sources. But “grizzly” comes from the Old French word grisel, from gris (gray).

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