The Grammarphobia Blog

Why “granary,” not “grainery”?

Q: In a report, I mistakenly referred to a building that holds grain as a “grainery” rather than a “granary.” Why isn’t it spelled “grainery”?

A: Yes, the storehouse for threshed grain is a “granary,” though the spellings “grainary” and “grainery” often crop up, influenced by the noun “grain.”

The ultimate source of both “grain” and “granary” is the Proto-Indo-European root gr̥ə-no-, which has also given English such words as “corn,” “kernel,” “gram,” “granule,” “grange,” “granite,” and “grenade,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says the ancient root meant “worn-down particle” (think of grain being ground into flour). Proto-Indo-European is the reconstructed prehistoric language that gave birth to a family of languages now spoken in much of Europe and parts of Asia.

English borrowed “grain” in the early 1300s from the Old French grain, which in turn comes from the classical Latin term for a seed, grānum. The noun was written various ways in Middle English (greyn, grein, greyne, etc.) before the French spelling prevailed in the early 1600s.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “grain” as a collective noun: “Jesus seyth the vygne be hys, / And eke the greyn of wete” (“Jesus sayeth the vine be his, / And also the grain of wheat”). From a poem, written around 1315, by William of Shoreham, a vicar in northern England.

How did the Anglo-Saxons refer to wheat, oats, rye, and other cereal crops before the word “grain” showed up? In Old English, they used “corn,” a word that still means grain in modern British English, as we’ve written on our blog. In American English, “corn” is what the British call maize.

As for “granary,” English adapted the word in the 16th century from grānārium, classical Latin for a place where grain is stored. And as you’d expect, grānārium comes from grānum, the Latin source of “grain.”

Not surprisingly, the two earliest OED examples use different spellings, “granarie” and “granary.” Here are the quotations:

“A Granarie, granarium” (from Manipulus Vocabulorum, an English-Latin dictionary compiled in 1570 by the English lexicographer Peter Levens).

“Fruits of godliness to be bestowed and laid up in the barn and granary of the kingdom of heaven” (a figurative example from the English writer and lawyer Thomas Norton’s 1570 translation of a French catechism).

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