I searched on YouTube for the reason why hair turns white then I found that Americans called it gray hair not white hair. In my opinion, its color is white so I don't understand why they call it gray hair.

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    Do you have any support for your assertion that Americans do that? – Roaring Fish Sep 14 '13 at 4:02
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    I think it is just because hair turns grey before it turns white so we talk about the former. That does not mean that we don't call white haired people white haired. The video you linked to talks about hair turning grey rather than grey hair in general. – terdon Sep 14 '13 at 4:10
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    OK... First I could care less about what NGram ever has as normal. We are talking about books vs billions of conversations a day. NGram is iffy at best. I would never use it as my main supporting piece. I have lived in America in several regions and hardly anyone refers to it as your hair turning white. Almost everyone uses grey. I mean seriously look at the products... Marketing is get rid of your grey hair. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 14 '13 at 4:14
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    @RyeBread:- okay... so you are telling us that Ngram is wrong, and COCA is wrong, but we should accept your opinion just because you say so? It doesn't work like that. If you say they are wrong, prove they are wrong. Prove that people in America say 'gray hair' but write 'white hair'. Until you can do that, the corpora are way more convincing than your say so. – Roaring Fish Sep 14 '13 at 5:52
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    @RyeBread: I do get it. My preference for Ngram and COCA is based on the fact that the sample size is far bigger -450 million words - than your unsupported opinion, and the sample frame far more representative. COCA draws from spoken language, fiction writing, popular magazines, contemporary newspapers, and from academic texts. What do you draw from? COCA - > llc.oxfordjournals.org/content/25/4/447.abstract – Roaring Fish Sep 14 '13 at 6:47

Gray (often spelled as grey in the UK) is an optical illusion. In actual fact the strands of hair which are always white, only appear gray because they are mixed with the remaining, naturally dark coloured hair. This explains why many people, not only Americans, say they are going gray. Some people never turn completely white haired because some hairs never lose their melanin.

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As people age, meanocytes slow down their production of melanin or stop working altogether, which results in a lack of pigment. Hair that lacks melanin looks white, while a mixture of pigmented and unpigmented hair results in a gray appearance.

Sources: Anatomy and Physiology for Health Professionals and Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History

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    +1 for answering an obvious science/logic question. +50 more if you don't put an Ngram chart in your answer. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 14 '13 at 6:09
  • Actually, grey is not “British English”, in that many Americans use it, too, and always have. – tchrist Sep 14 '13 at 18:49
  • But grey is definitely more common in the UK, it might make an interesting question in the future. – Mari-Lou A Sep 14 '13 at 19:03
  • The wikipedia article doesnt seem to support the statement "In actual fact the strands of hair which are always white, only appear gray because they are mixed with the remaining, naturally dark coloured hair". Where does this come from? In addition white would appear to be a subset of grey, given white is the brightest colour with no chroma and grey is any colour with no chroma. I cannot see how anything could be described as white but not grey. – Vality Jun 28 '15 at 0:43
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    @Mari-LouA Thank you very kindly for editing. The new sources are of excellent quality and make the post very much more informative and authoritative. – Vality Jun 29 '15 at 0:17

I'm American, and it would never occur to me to call it "white hair," no matter how close to #FFFFFF the color became. Once the hair loses its original color, it's turned grey, and, unless you color it, it stays "grey," even when it looks white. Why? I don't know, but there's been a lot of hullaboo about 50 shades of grey lately; maybe the clue lies therein.

As for the Ngram that's caused so much ruckus, that's easily explained by clicking on the links beneath the Ngram, and letting Google books dig up and display some sample usages. Most of the examples of "white hair" seemed to be talking from a very scientific point of view, where factual accuracy is presumbly paramount, or else talking about something else entirely:

However, the tryptophan levels are highest in grey and white hair, showing that tryptophan accumulates among hair fibres with age. Therefore, there is a correlation between tryptophan content and hair pigmentation.

The investigators administered chronic doses of radiolabeled chloropromazine to rabbits and determined the percentage of drug incorporated into black and white hair by measuring radioactivity of hair samples...

This one comes from a book on raising and showing guinea pigs:

Roan is the even distribution of white hair with any other colored hair.

and here's a reference where "white hair" refers to "hair on white people":

Craig also notes that “the dominant interpretation of African American male and female hair straightening has been that it expressed identification with a white hair aesthetic.”

So, unsurprisingly, we get a lot of Ngram hits when we look for "white hair", but they don't help us determine what color aging women are thinking of when they buy their first box of hair color, or what word men would use to describe their own salt-and-pepper hair.

On the other hand, many of the hits on search for the "grey hair" refer to hair that has lost its original color due to aging:

In Greek mythology, the power of Medea, the sorceress who fell in love with Jason, leader of the Argonauts, depended on her skill as a perfumer and her ability to use vegetable dye to turn grey hair black.

Traditionally, grey hair has been a sign of advancing age. People made a fuss about Barbara Bush's grey hair on the grounds that it made her look more like the President's mother than his wife.

"So, the more you worry about your grey hair the more grey hair you have, and the more grey hair you have the more you worry about it."

Here's one that addresses Mari-Lou's remarks:

Later in life grey hair develops. The grey colour is usually a result of a mix of coloured hairs and white (non-pigmented) hairs, although sometimes individual 'grey' hairs with reduced pigmentation are found.

I'd conclude that the Ngram supports the notion that most Americans call it grey hair, although you must do a little detective work, and not form a conclusion just by looking at the two lines.

I'm not going to lose any sleep over the fact that I've been (incorrectly?) calling white hair "grey" – after all, we often use imprecise terms when referring to color. Perhaps the sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and the American flag is red, white, and blue, but those blues aren't all the same color. We talk about "black people" and "white people" when really their skintones are more like a rich brown or a pale peach. Many yellow delicious apples I've eaten look more green than yellow. We speak of being red-faced when we are embarrassed and our skin blushes pink. We order red wine that looks closer to byzantium than red, and white wine that looks more yellow than white.

The Book of Proverbs says:

The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old.

I'm old enough to have lost a good bit of my strength, but young enough that I still have my original hair color. No strength, and no splendor. Maybe that's why men my age are so prone to midlife crises.

  • With reference to your guinea pigs, 'roan' is also the colour of a horse and probably other animals too. But why are all white horses known as a greys? – Mynamite Sep 14 '13 at 21:51
  • @Mynamite Actually, not all white horses are called grey; In addition to hair colour, horse colour takes into account skin tone, and most apparently-white horses are black-skinned. Or so I've been told by horse-y people of my acquaintance. – user867 Nov 28 '13 at 2:55

Perhaps in recent history not many people lived to have white hair but many lived to have grey (white + original color) hair? I've seen lots of people with grey hair but not all that many with white, so perhaps its a reflection that white-haired elders tend to remain isolated and out of the public eye while many grey-haired people remain in the workforce and thus are seen? Also, bluehair is a derogatory term I've heard used on enough occasions that I remember it.

If you're literally talking about the color of a given person's hair (as opposed to a generalization about older people), I think people use grey or white depending on the actual color. (In other words, I'm trying to say that the "gray-hair" you've heard seems to me to be a generalized and somewhat derogatory term rather than the term that's always used for gray and/or white hair, which is what your question seems to imply.)

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