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Monday, July 9, 2012

A Grisly/Grizzly Sight?

Is this a grisly or a grizzly sight? Maybe both...

Lately I've come across a certain misused pair of homophones in published books, and wanted to use this space to muse on it.

Something grisly causes horror in the viewer: We shuddered at the grisly sight of a dehorned rhino. Grisly is a word with a long history in English, being Anglo-Saxon in origin.

Grizzly is a newer word, at least 500 years younger than grisly. It refers to something grey or greyish, normally hair: By the end of his presidency, any man's hair will be more grizzly than it was at the beginning. Grizzly bears, as you can see in the picture above, develop a layer of grey hair.

Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but grey hair doesn't automatically make me shudder, which is to say that it usually isn't grisly, just grizzly.

So, while you might find the sight of a roaring grizzly bear also a bit grisly (but you should probably look for a less similar word), a gruesome murder is usually not grizzly except in the most absurd literature.