Dying vs. Dyeing

By Maeve Maddox

A reader sent me this example of the incorrect use of dying for dyeing:

This term [technicolor] was coined by the company of the same name, and the trademarked term described the company’s process of dying film to create a color print from black-and-white originals, replacing the time-consuming hand-coloring method.

Mixing up the verbs dye and die and their participles dyeing and dying in modern English is comical, but before the nineteenth century, the spelling distinctions were not always observed. For example, in his dictionary (1755), Dr. Johnson (1709-1784) spelled the words for both meanings as die. Joseph Addison (1672-1719), on the other hand, rendered both words as dye.

Nowadays, however, the spellings die and dying are reserved for the sense of “cease/ceasing to live,” while dye and dyeing have to do with coloring or staining something.

The words are often the source of punning. For example, the headline, “Dyeing to Succeed” refers to dyeing one’s hair in the attempt to overcome age discrimination in the workplace.

A common expression with the word dye is “dyed-in-the-wool,” meaning “unchangeable in one’s feelings or beliefs,” for example,

Never ever get involved with a dyed-in-the-wool feminist.

Fran Klein, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Frederick Douglass [said] “I am a Republican, a black, dyed-in-the-wool Republican…”

I am a dyed-in-the-wool, diehard, 1000-percent Trekkie, and I say Trekkie, not Trekker, and I don’t care what the nomenclature has become. –Akiva Goldsman

The expression comes from the fact that when dye is applied to a substance in its raw state, such as wool before it is spun, the resulting color is deeper and more lasting.

The dyeing process produced another expression, more commonly heard in earlier times, but not entirely defunct: “scoundrel of the deepest dye,” meaning, “an out-and-out rogue.”

You have proved yourself a scoundrel of the deepest dye, by maliciously interfering in matters which do not in the least concern you, to the detriment of some of our citizens.” –from a letter addressed to Hamilton Wilcox Pierson (1817-1888)

The man with the good personality may be a scoundrel of deepest dye, and the one with no personality may have the strongest character of the lot. –from a handbook for Christian missionaries (1954)

At other times, when he [Rudolph Valentino] portrayed a scoundrel of the deepest dye, he was made up to look quite repellent –from a 2003 feature in The Guardian

The distinction between die/dying and dye/dyeing is firmly established in modern usage, so you will want to avoid such gaffes as, “When did Eminem die his hair black?”

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7 Responses to “Dying vs. Dyeing”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have recently read (in a Web site) several times the phrase “Tye Dye” **. Unfortunately this is a writer who writes things like “The tye dye sweater was a gift from Mickey and I,” and “He took a picture of Kelly and I.”

    This is a woman who has a bachelor’s degree in movie production from a college in California, but she works as the site administrator of a large and complicated Web site. like her work a lot, and I have much praise for it. It is clear that she is quite intelligent, but where do these abuses of English come from? She seems not to know the difference between subjective case and objective case, too.
    I can just blame that on the American educational system.
    ** instead of “tie dyed”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is a British writer named Ian Stewart who writes remarkable books on technical subjects. He claims that the word “die” for the six-sided cube with dots on it is “dead”. Hence, people there say, “I rolled a dice.”
    I felt like writing him to tell him that the word “die” is alive and well in North America, and he should not publish such sentences as the above here. He just has the British version of his books exacly the same in America, rather than hiring an editor to correct the book for differences in American English. He even uses British slang expressions (now and then) that do not make any sense here.

    Anyway, there both make sense here, and people use them:
    “John rolled a die to get a random number from one to six.”
    “Sarah rolled a pair of dice to get a number from two to twelve.”
    “In this game, you toss a coin thrice and roll a die.”

    In summary, I was dumbfounded to read that he wrote “the word die is dead”, or words to that effect. When publishing in America, you need to use American English, and when publishing in Australia, you need to use Aussie English, and so forth. I don’t think that the expense is that huge, especially with computerized typesetting available.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have been watching a TV report on the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370, but I wasn’t glued to the screen.
    Then the reporter said the phrase “cling on” and my immediate reaction was “The Klingons got it?”

    Note that the reporter should have said “cling onto”.

  • Curtis

    More fuel for confusion: There is another definition for “die,” as the part of a punch-press or other stamping machine that presses metal into a desired shape and/or punches holes in it. A die has two parts: the upper die and the lower die.

  • venqax

    “John rolled a die to get a random number from one to six.”
    “Sarah rolled a pair of dice to get a number from two to twelve.”
    “In this game, you toss a coin thrice and roll a die.”

    I don’t think anyone, in the US at least, would dispute those. But you can’t say, “Sarah rolled a dice to get a number…” If that is OK in the UK, then please, keep it there on a short leash.

    @Curtis: True. Hence the idea of metal or plastic things being “die cast” or “diecast”.

  • Evelyn Howell

    I was a little taken aback by the use of the word gaff in the final sentence of the piece on dying/dyeing. Going by my various versions of dictionaries, “gaff” as a term for a blunder or mistake is fairly recent. For the longest time, the spelling (preferred?) has been “gaffe.”

  • Nemo

    Oddly enough my sister just told me about a group presentation in her class where the slide read: “More and more alligators are dyeing every year.” We pondered whether the alligators themselves are being colored or if they’re out there in the Everglades with buckets of dye and rubber banded t-shirts. Presumably to sell to tourists.

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