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Does a plan ‘gel’ or ‘jell’?

Q: Is it “gel” or “jell”? I offer the following: There’s a point in the process where things start to gel/jell.” I’ve searched several style manuals and usage guides to no avail. Is one of them correct or preferred or to be avoided like the plague?

A: “Gel” and “jell” are two different words with two different etymologies, though they mean the same thing when used figuratively as verbs in a sentence like the one you ask about. The two terms are homophones, words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning or origin or spelling.

“Gel” is derived from “gelatin” and “jell” from “jelly.” However, both verbs ultimately come from the same Latin source, gelare (to freeze), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Standard dictionaries have separate entries for “jell” (as a verb) and “gel” (as a noun and a verb). When the verb “gel” is used in the past tense or as a participle, the “l” is doubled.

Both verbs are usually defined much the same way. Literally, they refer to a liquid or semiliquid that sets or becomes more solid. Figuratively, they refer to a project or an idea that takes a definite form or begins to work well.

American Heritage, for example, has these definitions and examples for the two verbs when used figuratively:

  • Gel: “To take shape or become clear: Plans for the project are finally starting to gel.”
  • Jell: “To take shape or become clear; crystallize: A plan of action finally jelled in my mind.”

We haven’t found a usage manual or style guide that discusses the two terms, though some standard dictionaries describe “jell” as an Americanism or more common in American English. The New Oxford American Dictionary, for example, says it’s “mainly North American.”

search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that “gelled” is more popular than “jelled.” (The results include both literal and figurative senses.) Additional searches show that “gelled” is more popular in American as well as British English. With those results in mind, we’d prefer “gel” for the verb.

As for the etymology, the story begins in the late 14th century when the noun “jelly” first appeared in Middle English. It originally referred to a glutinous food made by boiling and cooling skin, tendons, bones and other animal products.

And it was originally spelled with a “g” because, as we’ve written before, the letter “j” didn’t become established in English spelling until the 17th century, though it had been used previously in place of “i” at the end of a numeral.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “geli” in the compound “gelicloth,” a cloth to strain jelly: “Et pro iij. vergis tele pro j gelicloth, xviijs.” From an expense entry dated March 20, 1393, in Expeditions to Prussia and the Holy Land Made by Henry Earl of Derby (1894), edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith. The earl was later King Henry IV of England.

The next OED citation, with “gely” as a stand-alone noun, is from a Middle English poem in which animals debate their usefulness to humans: “Of the shepe … Of whos hede boylled … Ther cometh a gely and an oynement” (from Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep, circa 1440, by John Lydgate).

The “jelly” spelling showed up in the 17th century. This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Jelly which we make of the flesh of young piggs, calves feet, and a cocke.” From A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657), by Richard Ligon, an English author who managed and co-owned a plantation on the island.

In the 18th century, the OED says, the noun came to mean “a preparation of the juice of fruit, or other vegetable substances, thickened into a similar consistence,” or “a preparation of gelatin and fruit juices in cubes or crystals, from which table-jellies are made.”

The dictionary cites these two examples from a medical treatise on diets for people with various constitutions and ailments:

“The Jelly or Juice of red Cabbage, bak’d in an Oven” and “Robs [Syrups] and Gellies of Garden Fruits.” From Practical Rules of Diet in the Various Constitutions and Diseases of Human Bodies (1732), by John Arbuthnot, a Scottish author, physician, and mathematician.

When the verb “jell” appeared in the 19th century, it meant to congeal or become jelly. The earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, published in two volumes in 1868 and ’69:  “The—the jelly won’t jell—and I don’t know what to do!” (Vol. 2, 1869).

The first Oxford example for the verb in its figurative sense of “to take definite or satisfactory shape” is from the early 20th century: “[He] remarked of his countrywomen’s minds that they ‘didn’t jell’; but he possibly, and mistakenly, thought he was talking American” (Daily Chronicle, London, March 20, 1908).

As for “gelatin” (the source of the noun and verb “gel”), it originally referred to the substance that’s the basis of the jelly made from animal tissues. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the year 1800:

“In relating the preceding experiments, I have had frequent occasion to remark, that a quantity of that animal jelly which is more or less soluble in water,  and which is distinguished by the name of gelatin, was obtained from many of the marine bodies, such as the Sponges.”

The OED says the noun “gel,” a short form of “gelatin,” appeared at the end of the 19th century as a term in chemistry for “a semi-solid colloidal system consisting of a solid dispersed in a liquid.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from “On the Structure of Cell Protoplasm,” a paper by W. B. Hardy in The Journal of Physiology (May 11, 1899):

“Graham’s nomenclature is as follows: The fluid state, colloidal solution, is the ‘sol,’  the solid state the ‘gel.’ The fluid constituent is indicated by a prefix. Thus an aqueous solution of gelatine is a ‘hydrosol,’ and on setting it becomes a ‘hydrogel.’ ” The reference is to Thomas Graham, known as the founder of colloidal chemistry.

When the verb “gel” appeared in the early 20th century, it meant to become a gel in the scientific sense: “Ligno-cellulose fibre … does not gel so readily by cold mechanical treatment as does cellulose” (Scientific American Supplement, September 1917).

The figurative sense of the verb appeared several decades later: “The combination of drawingroom and documentary failed to gel” (The Observer, London, March 30, 1958).

We’ll end with the hairdressing sense of the noun “gel,” which Oxford defines as “a jelly-like substance used for setting or styling the hair, sold as a jelly.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an advertisement in the journal American Hairdresser and Beauty Culture (July 26, 1958): “Contains miracle deprovinyllol/DEP/styling gel.”

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