I can’t believe we used to picnic at Bear Mountain. Sounds like the setup for a bad horror movie.

Dear Word Detective:  You were kind enough to answer a previous question of mine regarding “to the manner born” (love Shakespeare!), so here I am again. I have noticed that lately the words “grizzly” (as in bear) and “grisly” (as in gruesome, bloody) seem to have  merged and are being used interchangeably. Can you explain the difference between the two words, and how we seem to have become confused about them? — Mary Funke.

Really? Dat’s distoibing. I actually thought, back in the 1990s, that the increasing popularity of the internet would be a boon for reading and language skills because, back then, reading was the only thing you could do online. Practice makes perfect, yadda yadda. Text is still the bulk of content online, but the catch is that much of it appears to have been written by drunken chipmunks, or perhaps just by people with a very shaky grasp of standard spelling. Oh well, things do fall apart. I used to joke about the inevitable arrival of a “point and grunt” interface for computers, but then the iPhone and iPad arrived, proving that true genius often consists of patenting the stupidest thing you can possibly imagine.

One problem with distinguishing “grizzly” from “grisly” is that the two are homophones, words that sound the same even though their spellings differ. Another problem is that, while the two words are far from being synonyms, they both denote sources of fear and anxiety for most normal people and are thus far more similar in connotation than many other pairs of homophones (pail/pale, tail/tale, plane/plain, days/daze, etc.). Both “grizzly” and “grisly” play in the same mental ballpark. It’s a similar case when so many people type “free reign” rather than “free rein.” Both “rein” and “reign” connote forms of control.

While grizzly bears make lousy pets, their name does not refer to their marked propensity for mayhem (which did, however, earn them the Latin name “Ursus arctos horribilus”). But don’t take my word for the bear’s personality defects. Look up “grizzly bear” in Wikipedia at the moment, and you’ll find Stephen Colbert quoted to the effect that bears (apparently all bears) are “… godless killing machines … The insatiable blood lust of Bears can never be quenched and therefore all must be destroyed in order to save the human race. Recent scientific studies have shown that all Bears are possessed at the moment of birth by demons from Hell, which explains their Satanic behavior. …” That paragraph has, no doubt, already been pasted into dozens of term papers.

The “grizzly” in the bear’s name, however, is the common English adjective “grizzly” meaning “gray, grayish” or “grizzled,” from the Old French “grisel,” meaning “gray.” Grizzly bears are also known as “silver-tip bears” from the silvery-gray tips of their otherwise brownish fur.

Interestingly, the name of the grizzly bear may reflect an early instance of the “grizzly/grisly” confusion. When naturalist George Ord gave the bear a scientific name in 1815, based on the observations of Lewis and Clark (who had returned from their explorations with a dead grizzly), he called it “Ursus horribilus ord,” meaning “Ord’s horrible bear.” Some sources suggest that Ord misunderstood the “grizzly” in the bear’s popular name as “grisly,” meaning “horrible; causing horror, terror and extreme fear.” Ord’s use of the Latin word “horribilus”  (also meaning “causing horror or great fear”) would tend to indicate that he believed the bear got its popular name by being extremely scary, rather than from having silvery fur. In any case, the grizzly is now known as “Ursus arctos horribilis,” meaning “horrible northern bear,” to differentiate it from the closely-related brown bear.

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