Posts Tagged ‘Sweet Honey In The Rock’

‘Grey’ or ‘Gray’?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

Here’s one of those questions that writers ponder every once in a while: Is it “grey” or “gray”?

If I had a copy of the Associated Press stylebook here, I imagine it would say “gray.” For many years, in my own writing, I used “grey,” probably just to be contrarian. And, in a typographical sense, I think it looks better. I think, though, that my usage has shifted toward “gray” over the past few years, but how consistently, I’m not sure.

But which is preferred? And what is the difference, if any? The folks at the Grammarly website say that “gray” is preferred in the U.S., while “grey” is more common in other English-speaking countries. The website goes on to say:

Both gray and grey come from the Old English word grǽg. Over time, many different spellings of the word developed. The Middle English poem “The Owl and the Nightingale,” which was written in the twelfth or thirteenth century, uses the spelling “greie.” The fourteenth-century translation of the French poem “Roman de la Rose” uses the spelling “greye.” “Graye” can be found in the poem “Piers Plowman” written by William Langland in the second half of the fourteenth century. Examples of the spellings we use today can also be found in Middle English literature.

By the eighteenth century, “grey” had become the more common spelling, even though the legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson thought that “gray” was a better version. In the nineteenth century, English dictionaries followed Johnson’s cue and prescribed “gray” as the correct version, but to no avail. By the twentieth century, “grey” had become the accepted spelling everywhere except in the United States.

So let’s look at “grey” and “gray” on the digital shelves.

First, there’s the song “Grey Goose” as recorded by Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter) and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet for the Victor label in June 1940.

“Grey Goose” is a traditional tune that tells the tale of a preacher who hunted a goose that was impossible to kill, to cook or to eat. Wikipedia says the implication of the song is that the preacher had not properly observed the Sabbath (although the website notes as well “there are other folk songs which may or may not have existed before this song . . . that have a similar theme of the grey goose being indestructible.”)

I found the version by Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet on the CD Leadbelly: Take This Hammer, one of the eleven CDs in the series titled When The Sun Goes Down: The Secret History Of Rock & Roll. The series was released by RCA Victor and Bluebird in the early years of this century.

(A note on the spelling of Huddie Ledbetter’s performing name: For many years, since I first heard of the man when I was maybe in junior high school, I had seen it spelled as one word, “Leadbelly.” In recent years, I have read that Ledbetter actually spelled it as two words: “Lead Belly.” That’s the spelling used on his grave stone and it’s what Wikipedia uses.)

Here’s how Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet sang “Grey Goose.”

Almost fifty years later, Sweet Honey In The Rock recorded the song for the 1988 compilation A Vision Shared, a Folkways release that offered covers of songs written by Woody Guthrie and written by or associated with Lead Belly. But the song was titled, for some reason, “Gray Goose.” Here’s what Sweet Honey In The Rock did with it:

“Grey” or “gray,” take your pick. Either one works in this case.