Chasing the gray lady

Blogging has its hazards. In a comment on one of my posts, Cat 9984 wrote, “Britain is a very mysterious place sometimes. I asked a woman what the difference was between a grey lady and a ghost. She said there isn’t any.”

I don’t know what Cat 9984 expected me to say something in response–I didn’t think to ask. Maybe nothing. Maybe she just wanted me to join appreciate of the mystery that is Britain with her. But since I pass myself off as a close and baffled observer of the country, I expected myself to sound informed, in my usual uninformed way. 

The problem was that I had no idea what we were talking about, so I turned to the internet, hoping it would save my hash, and punched “grey lady, define” into Google.

Irrelevant photo: rhododendron

What did I learn?

The first definition told me that the gray (as opposed to grey) lady is the New York Times. Which I knew, I’m American and I grew up in New York. It’s the paper Donald Trump calls “the failing New York Times.” Every time he says it, the paper’s circulation goes up.

Keep talking, Don.

You might want to note (since it will be on the test) that when the color gray crosses the Atlantic, the E changes to an A. Or the A changes to an E. It depends on whether the color’s headed east or west.

What does this have to do with ghosts or with Britain? Nothing, so I moved on.

Merriam-Webster defined a gray lady as “a volunteer worker of the American Red Cross who provides nonprofessional care and services for the sick and convalescent usually in hospitals.” Which is also an American definition and so no help to us, since we’re supposed to be talking about Britain.

It’s also short a comma. When I’m done typing, I’ll send M-W a handful with a request to sprinkle them around randomly. One of them should land in the right place.

GoogleDocs, by the way, disagrees with M-W’s spelling of nonprofessional. It takes some nerve to disagree with a dictionary on spelling. GD probably does it to distract M-W While it sells M-W‘s data to Cambridge Analytica, or whatever its successor company’s called.

Before I left, M-W offered me a chance to sign up for the word of the day. My days already have lots of words, so I passed.

Next I learned that there was a grey lady in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Who was she? Helena Ravenclaw. And who was she? Oh, hell, I forget. It’s not on the test, so we can move on.

The link after that took me to the Urban Dictionary, which is where it got truly weird. One definition was, “A grey ghost of a lady that every primary (at least in my area) had. Usually found in the lads or girls toilets (depending on if you’re a lad or a girl). Appears at night or when someone says ‘grey lady’ three times and switches the light off. No primary school kid dared try it and if they did they left before she could appear (apparently).”

This is the only definition that was even remotely relevant to Cat’s question, but by this time the search had overtaken the reason I was searching, so I kept on.

The next definition was, “1. A nickname for a submarine. 2. Also, a person who drops a depth charge and farts in an area to be occupied by an unsuspecting victim.”

Aren’t you glad you asked, Cat?

Just under that was an ad suggesting that I buy a Grey Lady mug for my father-in-law, Jerry. This seemed oddly personalized, except that I don’t have a father-in-law. My partner and I couldn’t get married back when her father was alive, and his name was Wendell anyway. He would’ve just hated being my father-in-law. He did his best with the situation, but it was hard enough being my father-out-law.

Even if all that hadn’t gotten in the way, however, a mug that said “Grey Lady” doesn’t strike me as something he would have wanted, even if he was still alive and even if he’d have wanted a present from me.

Who do you suppose sold the data that said I had a father-in-law named Jerry?

Wikipedia mentioned an American catamaran ferry and a couple of movies, and then moved on to folklore, listing a series of ghosts said to haunt houses in England, Scotland, New Zealand, Malta, and the U.S. (specifically, North Dakota). Then it mentioned “The Grey Lady, the given name of the retired British Shorthair champion cat residing in New York City. However, the cat prefers the name Chicken.”

Since this was in the folklore section of the definition, maybe we have to accept being told what the cat liked to be called, although I’m not convinced of it. Personally, I wouldn’t dare call my cat Chicken, although he will accept being called Kitty if the word’s accompanied by food.

What have we learned about British culture from this excursion? Not bloody much. Some weeks are like that. If you’ve got a more sensible topic to suggest, jump in. I may not be able to do anything with it, but if I can I will.

58 thoughts on “Chasing the gray lady

  1. >What have we learned about British culture from this excursion? Not bloody much.
    But your use of the word “bloody” shows that you’ve absorbed a bit of British culture yourself!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Every now and then, it’s good to be reminded that we have a state called North Dakota.

    I remember the movie “Gray Lady Down” which, since the movie is about a submarine that was sunk by a Norwegian freighter while enroute to New York, might should have been called “Grey Lady Down” – I’m not sure the movie reveals the precise location of the accident and you didn’t reveal the precise location of the A/E line, so I have no way of speaking with authority.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. My parents are lifelong members of the National Trust and Historic Scotland. As such, I spent a lot of my childhood visiting historic properties. So many of them purported to have Grey Ladies that our ears would prick up if there was instead a Green Lady or Red Lady. Some castles had ghosts representing multiple colours so I was always in hope of finding a place that had seven ghosts, one for each colour of the spectrum. Never happened. Marketing opportunity missed perhaps. Scottish castles also had a propensity for having locks of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair and fragments of the tartan he wore at Culloden. As my Dad once pointed out to a tour guide, if all these tales were true, the Prince must have been plucked bald and wearing the shredded remains of a multicoloured kilt by the time he went over the sea to Skye.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. To me, Grey Lady (or, more properly GRAY Lady) is the NY Times. Also a ghost.Not as, far as I know, a particular ghost, just any apparition in what appears to be a woman’s long-skirted garment. I think that only applies to ghosts from an era in history when men’s garments were not of the long-skirted variety.
    It may also be a fisherman’s fly.Or is that a Grey Ghost?
    All very confusing. But a good giggle. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Your post has reminded me of when I lived in Kent as a child. Behind our house was the school playing field, and beyond that, the cemetery. There were tales of a “grey/gray lady” haunting the cemetery but I never knew, until now, that it just meant ghost! :)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Gray lady does sound more specific than ghost. It gives her a specificity that would creep me out more than a simple ghost would. If I happened to be eight years old and believed in ghosts. I was lucky enough not to.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I painted my hallway with a paint colour called ‘Pale Lady’. Does that count? When I got to the skirting boards and other trims I had it diluted and it became ‘Quarter Pale Lady’!

    Liked by 2 people

    • One more bit of dilution and it’d be invisible pale lady.

      Have you ever wondered about the process behind naming paint colors? Do they have one lone shell-shocked person coming up with all this or does it go through focus groups and committees and consultants? I worked, relatively briefly, in a garment factory and the time I was there happened to cover the change from one season’s color names to another’s. The colors, as far as I could tell, stayed the same but the names all changed.


      • Ha! Perhaps ‘invisible pale lady’ is the part I haven’t done yet!

        That’s a curious question you ask (your Superpower, I know). I love the idea of it being one person, perhaps with a dictionary and pin that she uses to randomly select two words to put together. However, it is more likely to be computer generated and then sent to consultants and focus groups. Where’s the romance in that?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I can’t find much romance in either computers or focus groups, but I love the idea of one person randomly selecting words from the dictionary. Probably a carefully edited dictionary, so they don’t end up with a shade called champagne poop.


  7. Fascinating, Ellen. Children saying “gray/grey lady” three times at night reminds me of the same spooky practice in America saying “Bloody Mary.” I was far too chicken to participate.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I managed to grow up without hearing that about Bloody Mary. On my block, the closest we came was saying, “The boogeyman’s gonna get you.” I remember saying something about that to my parents once–probably asking what the boogeyman was. The way they said he didn’t exist was so emphatic that it was several years before I understood that believing in the boogeyman wasn’t racist.

      Yes, I did have an interesting childhood.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sorry. Didn’t mean to cause such a fuss. I think you were posting about British behavior or customs or some such. I was just passing along something that I had thought was a little odd. The post I had read from the other lady contained something about grey ladies and ghosts. Since I had been wondering for a while what the difference was, she said there really wasn’t any. I came away with “All grey ladies are ghosts, but not all ghosts are grey ladies.” And I thank Val for the origin of the term

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d put it down to superstition myself. There’s also a belief that bad things come in threes. If you believe in it, you count till they add up to three, then you breath a sigh of relief and stop counting. When I drove cab, a lot of drivers talked about things getting particularly weird at the full moon. I can’t say I noticed it. Weirdness, in my experience, was randomly (if liberally) distributed thoughtout the month. But a belief like that does help a person organize their experiences so that they support the belief.

      Or so I believe–and maybe I’m organizing my experiences to support that.

      Liked by 1 person

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