Grizzly vs. Grisly

An embarrassing example of what happens when headline writers don't understand the difference between homophones.

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So I was browsing the news and came across an article on the CBS News web site about a horrific crime involving a Memphis woman charged with killing four of her children by slitting their throats with a butcher knife:

grizzly

Hmm, I wondered, as I pondered the headline (“Memphis mom charged with grizzly butchering of 4 of her kids”), did this woman murder her children in bear-like fashion? Was she a pro basketball fan? Or was she of extremely advanced age? (Apparently not: according to the text of the article, she was only 29.)

Because, you see, the word “grizzly” is typically used as a noun to refer to a particular species of bear, or in an adjectival sense to describe someone who is old and gray-haired.

Apparently the headline writer confused “grizzly” with its homophone, “grisly,” the latter of which means “causing a shudder or feeling of horror; horrible; gruesome.” But spell checkers don’t generally detect errors in meaning, so a correctly spelled but incorrectly used word will pass a spell check without being flagged.

Many words sound alike. Beware of imitations.