Grizzly or Grisly?


Although both grizzly and grisly are pronounced the same, [griz-lee], they have different meanings.

In a National Geographic Magazine article about the discovery of 1,700-year-old remains of a child and two adults in Bulgaria, the writer chose the wrong word:

According to the [archaeological] team, the grizzly discovery is likely linked to an ancient Goth invasion in the region.

The word wanted here is the adjective grisly, meaning, “something horrible.”

Grisly is thought to have come from a verb meaning, “to shudder with horror,” or “to be filled with dread.”

The adjective grizzly, on the other hand, means grayish. For example:

Sam, or “the little old man with the grizzly beard,” as he was now familiarly known, had therefore to keep a sharp lookout.— A romance of lake Wakatipu by Roderick Carrick, 1892.

In more recent writing, the word grizzled is a common synonym for the adjective meaning grayish, as in this excerpt:

The gas station attendant leaned into his window—saving him a reply. “What’ll it be?” the old man asked, scratching his grizzled beard.—American Star, Jackie Collins, 2012

As a noun, grizzly refers to a type of North American bear (ursus arctos horribilis).

Grizzly bears range in color from very light tan, almost white, to dark brown, but some early observers noted a silvery cast to their fur.

In a 1691 journal entry, the fur trader Henry Kelsey (c.1664—1724) described one this way:

… a great sort of a Bear which is Bigger than any white bear & is Neither White
nor Black But silver hair’d like our English Rabbit.

Another fur trader, Samuel Hearne (1745–1792), wrote that he’d seen “the skin of an enormous grizzled bear.” He also mentioned a landmark called “Grizzled Bear Hill, which takes its name from the number of those animals that are frequently known to resort thither…”

English is blessed with a rich vocabulary, including words that sound alike but have different meanings. It’s a writer’s responsibility to choose the correct word.

As Mark Twain said,

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.