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G-r-e-y Or G-r-a-y?

It's a gray area! Find out why the popular African grey parrot's "grey" is spelled with an 'e' versus an 'a'.

By Patricia Sund

When it comes to spelling the word for the color between white and black, gray or grey is acceptable; however, when it applies to the popular African parrot, Psittacus erithacus, “grey” is the way to go.

But why that particular spelling for African grey parrot, one of the world’s most popular pet birds?

Looking back on the history of language, the spelling of the word “grey” in the name African grey actually makes sense. This is because of etymology — the study of words; their history and origin — and how words have changed both in form and meaning over time.

The word “grey” is an Old English word derived from the spelling, græg, but it can be traced back even further in time to the prehistoric Indo-European word ghreghwos.

History Of “Grey”
Spelling was not standardized in England even as early as the eighteenth century until a group of booksellers in London, unhappy with the dictionaries available at the time, hired English writer Samuel Johnson to write one in 1746. Johnson was paid a flat fee of 1,500 guineas, about 2,500 U.S. dollars. After nine years, Dictionary of the English Language was finally completed and was published in April of 1755.  While it was not the first dictionary ever written, nor was it particularly special, it became the most commonly used dictionary for the next 150 years.

The spelling used in this extensive dictionary contained the Anglo-Norman spelling of words, which arrived in England with William the Conquerer after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Normandy is, of course, in France, and this invasion affected the way people in England spoke and spelled words. Old English was spoken in England before the invasion and the written language was done phonetically, but native English speakers today would be hard-pressed to understand it.

Anglo-Norman, also known as Middle English, was primarily the spoken language of the Norman nobles, and it was spoken in the courts of law, schools, and universities and other places where literate people could influence the language. Important correspondence was written in Anglo-Norman from the 13th to the 15th century and social classes other than the nobility wanted and needed to learn Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman was rather like the bridge between Old English which was heavily influenced by Scandinavia and the English language we know and use today.

While the English language survived the Invasion of Normandy, Anglo-Norman had enough influence for a long enough time to change the spelling of certain words. The British spelling of the word “colour” for instance, while in the United States, we spell it “color.”

From around 1600 with the first English colonization of North America, some English pronunciations and words "froze" when they reached America. This resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. As the colonists were isolated a long way from England, they did not benefit from England’s continued morphing of the language as time went on. So in certain ways, American English is more similar to Shakespeare’s English than the English of today’s Great Britain.

Noah Webster, who wrote the American Dictionary of the English Language didn’t get his dictionary published until 1828. Webster, a proponent of language reform, believed that the English spelling of particular words were unnecessarily intricate. So Webster simplified some of the spellings and introduced American English versions of the spelling. Some examples of his changes include “honor” for “honour,” “favorite” for “favourite,” “glamor” for “glamour” and, notably, “gray” for “grey.” He also added some words not found in English dictionaries. Many of his changes have stayed in the American spelling of words.

There are a few exceptions to this, as not all of his changes stuck. Certain words are still traditionally spelled in certain ways. The word greyhound, a dog breed, is traditionally spelled with an “e.”  Bred by the English aristocracy, the English have had greyhounds since the 9th century, long enough for that spelling to remain intact. The New York Times is nicknamed, “The Grey Lady,” yet you can also see it referred to with the alternate spelling.
This brings us to the spelling of the African grey. Henry the VII (1491 to 1547), King of England for almost 38 years, was known as a falconer and lover of birds. He also kept an African Grey that would call boatmen from across the water at Hampton Court Palace. Queen Victoria continued this royal tradition of including an African grey at Court. Her African grey Coco was taught to say, "God Save The Queen."

With the presence of African grey parrots so early on in British history and inversely, the presence of the British Empire in Africa, it seems inevitable that the spelling of the word “grey” in African grey remains the British version. A long history for such a little word!

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G-r-e-y Or G-r-a-y?

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Reader Comments
You know Pat, I could have done without the long lecture on the history of the English Language of grey or gray. I just want more on your greys. I love to hear about them.
Marilyn Hoyt, Fredericksburg, TX
Posted: 8/7/2014 11:18:25 AM
All very interesting, but no reason not to hav (sic) a single sensible spelling for the word. Spelling is meant to help us learn literacy. so it should be logical, easy to follow, and be predictable. Its etymology can be, as i said, interesting, but should not override spellings main function.
AllanJC, Christchurch
Posted: 7/18/2012 3:13:50 PM
Very interesting information.
Joel, Leavenworth, KS
Posted: 8/25/2011 11:53:27 AM
Fascinating article. Thanks for the "greyt" information!
Eowyn, Ithilien, ME
Posted: 7/27/2011 3:54:22 PM
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