Two items from early in June. First, the Zippy strip from June 2nd, a hymn to the 1957 Nash Metropolitan (a genuinely cute car, unlike current models, with their angry grilles):


Then, following a brief June 1st Facebook posting by grizzled copyeditor John McIntyre (of the Baltimore Sun) —

Yesterday: “pallet” for “palette.” Today: “palate” for “palette.”

— this complaint from UK copyeditor LS:

I’ve done a series of seven novels for an author [AZ: call him Auth] who can’t keep the differen[ce] between grille and grill in his head. And he uses it several times per story. And yes, I’ve told him – and it’s in every single word list I send him. I guess we all have a blind spot. Or maybe he’s doing it on purpose now, to wind me up!

LS’s report is characteristic of everyday reports about the way others use language: people describe usage in vague, abstract generalizations (“Sandy gets words mixed up”); they’re inclined to treat usages via their import for them (“Sandy insulted me”); and they are inclined to talk about what others can’t do rather than what they actually do (“Sandy can’t pronounce r”) . From such reports, we can’t tell what Sandy says, in what circumstances. We don’t know what Auth writes in what circumstances, beyond that it has something to do with the spellings grill and grille. John McIntyre’s report, in contrast, is quite clear; we might go on to investigate why one of his authors wrote pallet where palette would be standard, and another wrote palate where palette would be standard, but at least we have some facts to go on.

The 1957 Nash Metropolitan. Bill Griffith has been here before. In my 10/14/14 posting “The 1958 Nash Metropolitan”, we have the same artwork, but different artwork, different coloring, different text, and a different point:


No doubt there were differences between the 1957 and 1958 Nash Metropolitans, but for our purposes here they’re interchangeable. And they did indeed have cute little grilles; the 1957 model in Caribbean blue:


Contrast that with the big angry grilles on two 2018 cars. The sweeping Lexus LS:


and the toothy Mercedes Maybach:


The lexical items grill and grille. There are nouns and verbs, coming semantically in two groups: the cooking words, referring, among other things, to racks for cooking, as in barbecue grill (for which the spelling GRILL is standard); and the separation words, as in grilles the automotive gratings and grilles the screens in the Roman Catholic confessional (for which the spelling GRILLE is standard). They all have a single historical source, a set of closely related French lexical items that came into English in the 17th century: a masc. N gril, a fem. N grille, and a V griller.

From the evidence of the cites in the OED (which is only a small sampling of the data), GRILL seems to have been used for the separation N as well as the cooking N, at least most of the time, until the middle of the 19th century, when people began differentiating the senses by using GRILLE increasingly for the separation N (though on the evidence I’ve seen now, it looks like GRILL is still solid in the automotive industry). Some usage authorities insist that only GRILLE is acceptable for the separation N, but GRILL continues to be so common in these senses that NOAD, AHD, and other one-volume dictionaries list it as an alternative spelling.

The reverse — the spelling GRILLE for a cooking word — is well-attested in one context, the names of restaurants serving grilled food, where the spelling GRILLE is often used; many people find this spelling Frenchified and pretentious, like the spelling SHOPPE instead of SHOP in store names. Nevertheless, the spelling is widespread.

Digression on restaurant names. A small sampling of instances of this practice.

in North America: The Capital Grille in Paramus NJ, NYC, Baltimore MD, Chicago IL, Pittsburgh PA, Sarasota FL, Milwaukee WI, Miami FL, Seattle WA, and other locations; The Republic Grille, The Woodlands TX; The 24 Grille, Detroit MI; The Filling Station Grille, Hamilton MT; Theo’s Bar and Grille, Camp Hill Pa; Burbank Bar and Grille, Burbank CA; Dragon Gate Bar and Grille, Oakland CA; The Grille Restaurant and Bar, Etobicoke ON

in the UK: Turkish Grille, Cheltenham; The Lincoln Grille, Lincoln; Mexican Grille, London; The Garage Bar and Grille, Durham; Blue Parrot Bar and Grille, Manchester

elsewhere: Garden Grille Restaurant and Bar, Brisbane AU; Exuma Point Bar and Grille, Great Exuma, Bahamas; Highway Robbery Grille, Quezon City, Philippines

Some lexical details. In two sections. First, the cooking N, from NOAD:

noun grill:

[a] a metal framework [of parallel bars] used for cooking food over an open fire

[b] a portable device for cooking outdoors, consisting of a metal framework placed over charcoal or gas fuel.

[c] a dish of food, especially meat, cooked using a grill.

[d] (also grill room) a restaurant serving grilled food.

ORIGIN mid 17th century [OED2 1st cite 1685]: from French gril [n. masc. corresponding to fem. grille]

And the verbing of this N, or possibly a direct borrowing from the French verb griller; from NOAD:

verb grill:

1 [with object] cook (something) using a grill: grill the trout for about five minutes.

informal [with object] subject (someone) to intense questioning or interrogation: my father grilled us about what we had been doing | (as noun grilling):  they faced a grilling over the latest results.

[OED2 first cite as adj. grilled in 1668 (Pepys’ Diary); as verb ‘to broil on a gridiron or similar apparatus over or before a fire’ in 1672 (Andrew Marvell); ‘to torment with heat, to broil’ in 1825; ‘to subject to severe questioning’ in 1894 (George Meredith)]

Second, the separation N, used for, among other things, the screen in the Roman Catholic confessional and for automobile ventilation gratings, from NOAD:

noun grille (also grill):

a grating or screen of metal bars or wires, placed in front of something as protection or to allow ventilation or discreet observation.

ORIGIN mid 17th century [OED2 1st cite 1686]: from French [grille ‘grating’], … [ultimately] related to crategrate2, and griddle.

More detail from OED2:

noun grille (also grill):

1.a. A grating; an arrangement of parallel or cross bars, or structure of open metal-work, used to close an opening or separate one part of a room, etc. from another; spec. a grating in a door through which callers may be observed or answered without opening the door; the grating which separates visitors from the nuns in a convent-parlour; the screen in front of the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons; etc. [1st cite 1686; the first 4 cites (1686, 1712, 1712, 1848) have the spelling grill, thereafter (1862, 1862, 1870, 1876) grille]

b. spec. Such a structure fixed in the body of a motor vehicle in front of the radiator, which it protects without preventing the flow of air over it. Frequently as radiator grill(e). [1st cite 1930; all 6 cites have the spelling grille]

And the verbing of this N, or borrowing of the Fr. verb griller, from OED2:

verb grille trans.:

to fit with a grille or grating. to grille off: to fence off with a grille [two 1848 cites from Benjamin Webb, Sketches of Continental Ecclesiology: The choir is grilled, and rigidly kept private; The chapels are all grilled off].

Not the end of lexical complexities, but this will do for now.

Ordinary people as reporters on usage. From above, expanded some: ordinary people describe usage in vague, abstract generalizations (“Sandy gets words mixed up”; LS: Auth “can’t keep the differen[ce] between grille and grill in his head”); they’re inclined to treat usages via their import for them (“Sandy insulted me”; often, people can no longer retrieve the actual words used, only their effects), and to see the usages as intentional (LS doesn’t do this generally, but does entertain the possibility that Auth is being deliberately uncooperative); and they are inclined to talk about what others can’t do rather than what they actually do (“Sandy can’t pronounce r”; LS again: Auth “can’t keep the differen[ce] between grille and grill in his head”).

Since LS is a language professional, a copyeditor, and since LS’s comment came right on the heels of John McIntyre’s quite specific account of the problems he was encountering in copy he was editing, it didn’t occur to me that LS was behaving like on ordinary person reporting on usage; I assumed that she was reporting on the common GRILL / GRILLE issue, GRILL for GRILLE.

I assumed wrong, and LS immediately set me straight, telling me that Auth uses GRILLE “much more than” GRILL — but without saying which senses of GRILL are affected. Nor did LS say what specific advice Auth got on the matter: if LS’s word list just says something like “Don’t confuse GRILL and GRILLE”, then of course, unless Auth can read LS’s mind, he will learn nothing from it.

(Digression: this is not much of a problem with the word confusion of PALATE / PALETTE / PALLET, though they are also homophones with different spellings, because the range of meanings of the items is pretty narrow. The spelling confusion is, however, very common (the words are not particularly frequent), so that usage advisers don’t just say “Don’t mix these up”, but give quite specific advice. From Paul Brians’Common Errors in English Usage site:

palate / palette / pallet: Your “palate” is the roof of your mouth, and by extension, your sense of taste. A “palette” is the flat board an artist mixes paint on (or by extension, a range of colors). A “pallet” is either a bed (now rare) or a flat platform onto which goods are loaded.

By the way, Brians has no entry for grill / grille.)

I brought up the possibility that GRILLE was encroaching on the territory of GRILL because it looks Frenchy and elegant (recall the bar-and-grille examples above), while GRILL looks Germanic and down-to-earth. (Meanwhile, the Germanic spelling GRILL seems to have a lot of life in it. There are a great many occurrences of automobile grill — for example, in a 1984 patent application by Nissan Motors: “FIG. 1 is a front perspective view of an automobile grill showing the new design”, and in Motor Trend 8/81, “Grill on Mitsubishi Automobile, bottom of page”. These are mostly uses within the industry; in advertising, the more elegant spelling GRILLE seems to be the rule.)

But, LS countered, “He writes down-and-dirty thrillers and tends not to reach for fancy or ‘refined’ words unless it’s for a particular character’s dialogue”. LS did note that Auth didn’t use GRILLE as a verb (GRILL is the standard here), but still never said, specifically, what Auth actually did, or what specific advice LS provided him. My exchanges with LS were unpleasantly like my exchanges with beginning linguistics students faced with data from non-standard varieties, child language acquisition, and second language learning: despite my warnings, and my offering models of how to talk about these things, they want to fall back on saying what these speakers can’t do, what they don’t know, what they haven’t learned.

LS did introduce a fresh twist, however:

… remember, too, that in the UK we grill food (akin to your broiling) and the wire mesh in the grill pan is a grille.

Whoa, that last bit (boldfaced here) was news to me. OED2 doesn’t have GRILLE used for the wire mesh in a grill pan, though that usage would make sense for a separator. What I found in UK images on the net is what I remember from when I lived in the UK: there’s the grill in an old-fashioned cooker (that is, stove), allowing broiling from above; and there are barbecue grills, devices for barbecuing on a rack, with heat provided by hot coals below the rack. I could find no evidence that the mesh below the food broiling in a grill in an old-fashioned cooker was called a GRILLE. Or that the rack (the framework of metal bars) below the food cooking in a barbecue grill was called a GRILLE in the UK.

So I wrote to my go-to person on British-American differences in usage (and attitudes about them), Lynne Murphy at Sussex University. Who replied in e-mail on June 7th:

I have not seen ‘grille’ in any cooking contexts. The ‘grill’ that’s used for broiling is the heating element, not the rack. So people put things under the grill. ‘Grill pan’ or ‘grill tray’ are what I can find for what you put under the grill.
For the barbecue kind, the UK Weber website (which has UK spelling, so it’s not just the US website) has ‘rack’ and ‘grate’.
That’s as much as I know! I’m as suspicious of the info you’ve been given as you are.

LS abandoned our exchanges, and I lost hope that I would ever get specific answers about what has been going on between LS and Auth.

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