A reader asks,
Would you please explain the variation in spelling of the word gray vs. grey?
Short answer: gray is standard American spelling and grey is British spelling for the same color.
The spellings have bounced back and forth.
The Old English stem was spelled grǣg.
According to the OED, ”The variation between spellings in ei, ey, etc., and in ai, ay, etc., in later Middle English results from the general Middle English merger of the ei and ai diphthongs.” Examples of spellings that evolved from the merger are clay, gray, grey, and whey.
In Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary, the entry for the adjective is spelled gray: “white with a mixture of black.”
A note in the OED describes an informal inquiry made in 1893 that found differences among the usage of British publishers:
the printers of The Times stated that they always used the form gray; Messrs. Spottiswoode and Messrs. Clowes always used grey; other eminent printing firms had no fixed rule. Many correspondents said that they used the two forms with a difference of meaning or application: the distinction most generally recognized being that grey denotes a more delicate or a lighter tint than gray. Others considered the difference to be that gray is a ‘warmer’ colour, or that it has a mixture of red or brown.’
Various attempts have been made at different times to establish different colors for gray and grey. Here’s one from 1867:
G. W. Samson Elem. Art Crit. v. i. 483. Professional, if not primitive English usage has made a distinction between gray and grey. The spelling gray may with propriety be employed to designate admixtures in which simple black and white are employed. The form grey may indicate those admixtures which have the same general hue, but into which blue and its compounds more or less slightly enter.
Individuals may prefer one spelling to the other, but the rule is, American spelling gray; British spelling grey.
Note: The grey in greyhound has nothing to do with the animal’s color. The OED tells us that this grey is “apparently a first element cognate with Old Icelandic grey, “bitch.” The Old Icelandic word for a female dog is greyhundr. In English the word came to mean a particular kind of dog:
A breed of fast-running, keen-sighted dog having a long slender body and head and long legs, long used in hunting and coursing, and now used in racing; a dog of this breed.