Die vs. Dye

By Maeve Maddox

Although referred to as a “hoax,” a recent false report of the death of a beloved celebrity was the result more of ignorance than of malice. The rumor may have stemmed from this headline above a story posted in September in the Empire News:

Actress Betty White, 92, Dyes Peacefully In Her Los Angeles Home

A pun that the headline writer must have thought was extremely clever is in fact an example of extreme bad taste. The story was about the fact that Betty White dyes her hair in the privacy of her home:

“Betty is a solitary kind of person,” said Witjas [White’s agent]. “She likes to relax in her home with her animals, and she rarely likes to discuss the fact, at least in public, that she is actually a brunette. She has been dyeing her own hair in her home for decades. Betty has often told me she feels it is relaxing and soothing to dye her own hair, peacefully in her home, where she can laugh and enjoy time with her animals. She’s said on more than one occasion that as a blonde, she has had ‘more fun’ in her roles, and in life.”

Irresponsibility on the part of the publication, plus the weak spelling skills of some readers, produced the distressing rumor.

The word die functions as both noun and verb. As a noun, it has more than one meaning:

die (noun): a small cube of ivory, bone, or other material, having its faces marked with spots numbering from one to six. (The plural of the game piece is dice.)

die (noun): an engraved stamp used for impressing a design or figure upon some softer material, as in coining money, striking a medal, embossing paper, etc.

As a verb, die means, “to cease to live.” Its principal parts are: die, died, (have) died, dying.

The word dye also functions as both noun and verb:

dye (noun): color used to stain a substance.

dye (verb): to impart a color to something (fabric, hair, etc.) The principal parts are: dye, dyed, (have) dyed, dyeing.

The spelling distinction between dye and die is fairly recent. Dr. Johnson (1709-1784) spells both words die in his dictionary. Joseph Addison (1672-1719) spelled both words dye.

The modern spelling distinction clearly serves a valuable purpose.

As for punning headlines, they may be fun to write, but they can have unintended consequences.

Related post: One Die, Two Dice

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1 Response to “Die vs. Dye”

  • Mark Haswell

    I appreciate your tips, and find them very useful. However, in today’s article there is a significant error. You wrote,” A pun that the headline writer must have thought was extremely clever is in fact an example of extreme bad taste.” “Extreme bad taste” is a matter of opinion, not a fact. I’m not quibbling with you about whether or not the pun was in bad taste, but stating that it is a fact rather than an opinion is incorrect.

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