A Question of Orthography


A RECENT writer to the Contributors’ Club has confessed his affection for certain English words and dislike of certain others, and asked for sympathy in his preference. I fancy we all sympathize in the main, although we might not all hit upon the same antipathies. But I should like to go a step farther, and beg to know whether any one will agree with me in liking some ways of spelling better than others. The whole value of a word does not lie in its sound, nor yet in its meaning, nor in its association even. Though this last tempts me to pause and reflect how much association does have to do with the literary value of words. " Purple,” now; I doubt whether any other color occurs so often in literature as purple, yet it is not only for the rich beauty of its syllables, but also for its hint of royalty. And then the heraldic colors — why do the poets choose them ? Is sable more dark than black, or more yellow than gold ? Nay, but at the sound of these words “ the past shall arise,” and all the panoply of the Middle Ages, monks and Crusaders and kings, march before us at the call of a magical word like “ gules.” “ And threw warm red on Madeline’s fair breast,” — what were that line then ?

But apart from beauty of sound or charm of suggestion, it also matters a good deal, to me at least, how a word looks.

I wish I knew how many persons feel a difference between “ gray” and “ grey,” for instance. To me they are two different colors, but I can get no authority for my fancy. The dictionary does not help out in the least, for after describing “ gray ” in its unimaginative way as “ any mixture of white and black,” it dismisses “ grey ” with saying coldly, “ See GRAY (the correct orthography).”

After that rebuff I suppose it is very obstinate of me to continue to see any distinction between them, or anything in either beyond a mixture of white and black. But if they mean exactly the same thing, why don’t the poets stand by one of them alone ? Or if, since poets are a wingèd race who are not to be bound by rules of any kind, they have simply set down, hit or miss, whichever one they thought of first, am I then the only person whom they have befogged into thinking there is a choice between them ? Does the dictionary mean to imply that Swinburne did not know what he was about when he wrote “ Bird of the bitter, bright, grey, golden morn,” or that Morris was merely suffering from the great man’s inability to spell, when he sent “ an old grey man ” to inhabit his Dream ? To my mind, that dawn of Swinburne’s could not be half so cold, nor so early, nor so long ago, if grey had been spelled with an “ a.” It would have become at once an ordinary cloudy morning, good for hunting perhaps, but certainly without any suggestion of gold in it. Gray and gold do not mix; they are for contrasts, like youth and crabbed age. But grey—that may have brown in it, and green, and why not gold ?

Gray is a quiet color for daylight things, but there is a touch of difference, of romance, even, about things that are grey. Gray is a color for fur, and Quaker gowns, and breasts of doves, and a gray day, and a gentlewoman’s hair ; and horses must be gray :

“ Woe worth the day
That cost thy life, my gallant gray,”

laments one of Sir Walter’s cavaliers, and I know that is right. But I cannot say why. Can no one tell me ?

Now grey is for eyes, the eyes of a witch, with green lights in them, and much wickedness. But the author of Wishmakers’ Town has not discovered this. In that charming little volume a group of girls are found chattering fondly of the future and the coming lover, when one among them, a siren of a maiden, cries mockingly, —

“ Though the king himself implore me,
I shall live unwedded still,
And your husbands shall adore me.”

And a student near by, nudging his fellow, says,—

“ Heard’st thou what the Gray Eyes said ? ”

Which goes to show that she could never really have said it at all. Gray eyes would be as tender and yielding and true as blue ones; a coquette must have eyes of grey.

Mrs. Alice Meynell has written one of her subtle little essays about a Woman in Grey, whom she makes the type of the modern woman who can go her own way and take no odds of man. But had she gowned her in gray, do you not see what added simplicity, tenderness, and femininity it would endow her with at once ? Such a woman would have to be protected.

Dr. Van Dyke, again, invented the pretty title of My Lady Greygown for the charming wife who glides across the pages of Fisherman’s Luck. But if that gown had been of gray, would she not have to be a gentle, Quaker-like lady who sat at home reading a quiet book while he beat the streams ? “ My Lady Greygown,” however, I am sure is a grande dame.

Are these all accidents ? I shall never believe it, no matter what the dictionary says. Why, the dictionary does not even recognize “faëry ” without calling Spenser in to take the responsibility. Yet who does not feel that “ faëryland forlorn ” is a thousand times more distant and enchanting than any “fairyland” could be ? How that little change conventionalizes it at once ! Fairyland we may see upon the stage, but the land of faëry — ah, no !

Verily the letter “ e ” is a sorcerer’s letter. We hear a great deal about the “ lost e ” in the Romance languages, but I cannot help thinking that perhaps it has only strayed across the Channel to cast a haunting gleam of romance upon some English words. Will any one, perchance, agree with me ?