An EL&U question from 2010 asks Which is the correct spelling: "grey" or "gray"? The answers very sensibly point out the split between the UK and former British commonwealth nations preference for grey and the U.S. preference for gray.

But if you look up the phone listings for the surnames Gray and Grey in an arbitrarily selected UK city (I chose Sheffield, Yorkshire), you get many more for Gray than for Grey. For example, for Sheffield, I got 52 matches for Gray versus 6 for Grey at the BT The Phone Book site, as of September 1, 2014.

A quick trip to Samuel Johnson’s 1756 Dictionary of the English Language reveals this entry for gray:

GRAY, a. [ʒɲæʒ, Saxon; grau, Danish] 1. White with a mixture of black. Newton. 2. White or hoary with old age. Walton. 3. Dark like the opening or close of day. Camden.

And this entry for grey:

GREY, a. [gris, French] See GRAY.

Does it follow that most Gray surnames were adopted on the model of the Danish grau and/or during the period of dominance (assuming that there was one) of gray in British English, while the surname Grey reflects a preference for the French antecedent gris and/or a later adoption of or switching to the current UK preference for grey? If not, what is the explanation? And when (if ever) did British English abandon Samuel Johnson’s evident preference for gray as the standard spelling of the non-surname word?

  • Off the top of my head: I suspect it has something to do with "Grayson". I don't think "Greyson" as a surname is common at all, perhaps "Gray" is a variation of the former? – Mari-Lou A Sep 1 '14 at 9:07
  • It's all about breeding. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 1 '14 at 9:23
  • This gives some opinions, regarding the origins, that seem fairly reasonable. Wikipedia contributors, "Gray (surname)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/w/… (accessed September 1, 2014). – Frank Sep 1 '14 at 9:40
  • Unfortunately, in the Wikipedia article, neither the crucial paragraph asserting that "Among the Scottish and Irish Grays, the surname usually has a Gaelic source" nor the following paragraph arguing that "In England, the name is typically of Norman origin, stemming from one of the knights who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066, Anchetil de Greye" offers any authority for the assertion. The paragraph on Scottish and Irish Grays bears the dread "[citation needed]" tag, but the English Grays sentence/paragraph is just as unsupported. – Sven Yargs Sep 1 '14 at 19:57
  • 1
    surnamedb.com/Surname/Grayson The article points out that Grayson has English medieval origins and The derivation is from the ancient word "greyve", meaning a steward,... No connection with the colour. – Mari-Lou A Sep 1 '14 at 21:12

There is a long discussion of “grey” vs “gray” in the OED. Historically, greig goes back to Old English, while grae, grai does not show up until Middle English. “Grey” is the preferred spelling in modern British English, but people can spell their names anyway they like, and there is perhaps an attraction in spelling your name differently from a common colour adjective.

By the way: French gris is not the antecedent of English “grey”, as Johnson seems to have believed; it is a Germanic loanword.


There is an excellent web resource at www.surnamedb.com. It says about the surname Gray:

Recorded as Gray, Graye, Grey, Greye, de Grey, MacGray, McGray, McGrah, McGreay, McGrey, and possibly others, this ancient Anglo-Scottish surname has at least two possible origins. The first was Old English and a nickname or personal name for a man with grey hair or beard, from the pre 7th century word "graeg", meaning grey. Although the name means the same in Scotland and Ireland,name holders there took their name from the early Gaelic word "riabhach" which also means brindled or grey. The second separate origin is French and locational. As such it is from the village of Graye in Calvados, Normandy, and was introduced into the British Isles after the famous Conquest of 1066. The village was called from the Roman personal name "Gratus" meaning welcome, with the suffix "acum," a settlement. Early recordings of the surname include Baldwin Grai, in the Pipe Rolls of Berkshire in 1173, and Henry de Gray, in the Pipe Rolls of Nottinghamshire, dated 1196. Other examples include Henry Gray and Jone Darby married at St. Margaret's, Westminster, on November 30th 1539 and Catherine MacGray, christened at Endell Street lying in hospital, city of London on March 17th 1763. Thomas Gray (1716 - 1771), the poet, was most well known for his "Elegy in a Country Churchyard", published in 1751. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Anschitill Grai. This was dated 1086, in the Domesday Book of Oxfordshire, during the reign of King William 1st, known as "The Conqueror", 1066 - 1087. Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. In England this was sometimes known as Poll Tax. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.

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