Gray is not the first word that comes to mind when someone thinks of excitement. In fact, most of the population connects gray with boredom and mundane life. In fact, a common expression is ‘gray day’ – a way to say that someone is depressed or in a melancholy mood. However, upon looking into the origins of gray – and its British counterpart grey – we find a fascinating history of passive-aggressive politics played out on a global scale.
Politics Through Language
To gray or grey that is the question; and depending on which side of the line someone falls says a lot about their cultural history. Engrained in the gray debate is the fundamental question of conservative or liberal. Going back to 1783 C.E. you find a raging identity war in the U.S. with Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster leading the charge. Franklin pushed for what would be known as the American spelling reform; it was Webster – yes that Webster – who would take up the cause.
In 1783 C.E. Webster released the first copy of his Americanized spelling-book, and by 1825 C.E. gray was the dominant form of spelling in the U.S. by a wide margin. The first usage of grey dates back to 700 C.E. Though both spellings are derived from the same Old English spelling of the word, grǽg. In the U.K. – or British Empire as it was known – the usage of gray and grey were more evenly split. It was not until the 1950’s that grey became the dominant form of spelling, and gray fell to the waste side in the U.K.
Despite being less common, gray is still a politicized word. The terms ‘gray power’ or ‘gray vote’ are used as a short hand for the elderly, and their ability to influence elections. Though recent elections show that ‘gray power’ is waning in the west. While green is the color most often associated with youth, it is unlikely that ‘green power’ will become a new term for the younger voting block and their rising power, given that green is so closely related to the environmental movement.
As modern political parties become more polarized into the left and right, leading to the public to view the world more in black and white, perhaps a gray view has become needed more than ever. The ‘gray area’ has traditionally been upheld as a valid place in ethical debates, and perhaps it is time for that same ‘gray area’ to find its home in modern politics.
The good news is that whether someone uses grey or gray will not change the meaning of what they are trying to convey. Unless they refer to Mr. Gray as Mr. Grey, which might cause some confusion. It is best to view gray and grey as a dialectic choice which shows the cultural history of where the person is from rather than a grammar issue that must be solved. The only exception would be in switching back and forth. Under no circumstance should gray and grey be used interchangeably.