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Why are they called grizzly bears?

Posted by scott.weybright | July 14, 2016

“Grizzly” originated from two words that sound similar but have different meanings.

Is it because of their frightful — or grisly — nature or their grizzled appearance? It depends on which explorer wrote about the bear more than 200 years ago.

Hair color or frightening nature, what is the true origin of the name grizzly bear?
Hair color or frightening nature, what is the true origin of the name grizzly bear?

The first known written record of the species was documented in 1790 by Canadian explorer/author Edward Umfreville. “Bears are three kinds: the black, the red, and the grizzle bear,” he wrote. Because grizzle means a mixture of dark and white hairs, presumably Umfreville was referring to the silvery-gray tips on the bears’ brownish fur.

But five years later, Scottish explorer Sir Alexander MacKenzie described in his journal a “grisly bear” that left tracks “nine inches wide” along a river bank.

In 1805, Lewis and Clark gave the bear an authenticated place in history. Blazing trail through a wilderness area now known as Montana, the duo provided scientific measurements and observations in their journals. At first, they dubbed the species a “grisly” bear and later, a “grizzly.”

Years later, the confusion lives on. According to the Oxford University Press, it’s not usual to see the two words misused. Suspects are accused of committing

grizzly crimes. Police encounter grizzly scenes. Grisly bears get cited with dolphins, storks, cranes and pelicans.

Meaning that, the English language – like the grizzly bear itself – is a complex beast.