The Naming of Things: Grey vs Gray

What’s in a name? That is the question, isn’t it? When it comes to the Grey whale (or the Gray whale?) it depends entirely on where you’re from.

You only have to see a Grey whale once to understand where the name comes from. They’re grey. But if you’re from the United States you would say that they’re gray. Both names are correct, and both are commonly used throughout scientific literature. The two different spellings have existed for hundreds of years, but “gray” became the more dominant spelling for American writers in the 19th century.  Ever since, you tend to see “gray” used throughout the United States and “grey” used in most other English-speaking countries.

Photo by Brian Gisborne

Since Grey whales migrate through both Canada and the United States in the Pacific Ocean you will find numerous studies using both spellings of the name. I’m honestly pretty impressed that neither country has insisted that one is more correct than the other, or that neither country has tried to make it “my way or the ocean highway.”

While the Grey whale (have you figured out what country we’re from yet?) may have a fairly obvious common name let’s also take a moment to look at its scientific name, Eschrichtius robustus. It’s tricky to determine exactly when Grey whales were first described by science due to the fact that European researchers were examining their skeletons rather than live animals. We know that skeletal remains were examined in England and Sweden throughout the 1800’s, but the species wasn’t given it’s official scientific name until 1865. The genus, Eschrichtius, comes from Danish zoologist Daniel Frederik Eschricht, who was considered to be one of the leading authorities on whales at the time. The species name, robustus, comes from the Latin “robur” which means “hard” or “strong.” I don’t think that anyone would argue a Grey whale isn’t strong…

Photo by Judith Scott

Now you know! Check our all our Grey whale stories (we use “grey” regardless of where the sighting occurred) head here and don’t forget that you can share your whale (or dolphin or porpoise) stories with us at any time here.

2 thoughts on “The Naming of Things: Grey vs Gray

  1. Gray whales along the Pacific coast, especially in California are always spelled with an A, not an E. This is in honor of the fact that they have been historically studied and tracked mostly a long the American coastline. Americans spell it with an a, Europeans spell it with an E. It is my experience that neither the scientific community, or the general public use both spellings equally. This is based only upon my own experience over the last 30 years.

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