Gry, Gry, Everywhere, and Not a Clue in Sight.
One of the corollaries of writing a newspaper column on words and language, answering questions from readers, is that I frequently receive questions that I have already answered. This is not surprising -- after all, I can't expect my readers to lock themselves in tiny rooms, forgo meals and vacations and all human companionship (as I do), all for the sake of keeping up with one little column. So when I receive a question I've already answered (the derivation of "posh" being a perennial favorite), I usually either answer it again in print or reply by mail.

My policy on reruns was working quite well until recently, when I suddenly began to receive a particular question not once a month, not even once a week (the previous record, held by "posh"), but in the neighborhood of five times a day, every blessed day of the week. All of these queries came via internet e-mail, and all of them asked the same question in roughly the same words:

"There are supposed to be three common words in English ending in 'gry' -- hungry, angry, and ....what? What's the third word ending in 'gry'?"

This is, you will note after a few moments of quiet reflection, a most remarkably vexing question, and my readers showed signs of being mightily vexed. It isn't easy to convey desperation in an e-mail message, but many of my correspondents made it clear that their lives had been rendered unlivable by prolonged contemplation of the puzzle. "Please send the answer right away! It's driving me crazy!" was tone of the more sedate messages. A few of my more excitable readers threatened dire consequences, ranging from pulling out their own hair to pulling out mine, if I didn't hop to it, pronto, and supply the magical third word.

My first impulse, faced with a torrent of such desperate entreaties, was to ignore the whole ruckus. After all, not only had I answered this question twice within the last year, but my columns on the subject were posted on my World Wide Web page, in plain sight of most of my questioners. I had even put a note near the top of my Web page asking folks to read the columns rather than bedeviling me with endless variations on the "gry" question. A distressing number of my readers, however, evidently addled by the siren song of "the third word," were unable to read my plea for surcease, and so the deluge of "gry" continued.

Perhaps it was because I opened my e-mailbox one morning and discovered a baker's dozen of fresh queries about the "third word," or perhaps it was because one of them came from a distinguished dictionary editor (who shall remain, although not nameless, herein unnamed), but that morning I decided that I owed a duty to my readers, and that my only honorable course was to gird for battle yet again and venture forth to expunge the hydra-headed "gry" riddle once and for all. Besides, all this "gry" business was beginning to get on my nerves.

Conveniently for me, a collection of possible "third words" ending in "gry" already existed, compiled by the brain-teaser mavens in the "rec.puzzles" Usenet discussion group on the internet. It seems that aside from words based on "angry" or "hungry" (such as "dog-hungry"), Webster's Third New International unabridged dictionary lists only one word ending in "gry" -- "aggry," meaning a type of prehistoric bead. But it seems quite a stretch to classify "aggry" as a common English word. Elsewhere, the Oxford English Dictionary, among others, also lists "gry" as a word all by itself, meaning a very small distance (about a tenth of an inch in John Locke's proposed decimal system). The Greek root of "gry" is noted in the OED as possibly meaning "the grunt of a pig," presumably one who was offered "gry" as a solution to this puzzle. Whether this minimalist "gry" can, in fact, be fairly said to "end" in "gry" is an existential question, but, in any case, the OED classifies this particular "gry" as obsolete, so it fails the "in common use" test.

And with those half-hearted clues, the trail of the diabolical "gry" went cold. In a display of either virtuoso lexicographic gumption or understandable frustration, whoever compiled the rec.puzzles article on the subject had appended a long list of words culled from a wide variety of dictionaries, all of them ending in "gry," most of them obsolete, and none of them even close to being an acceptable answer.

There appeared to be no satisfying solution to the "gry" challenge. "Aggry" seemed to be the accepted answer to the puzzle by virtue of its inclusion in Webster's Third, and it was the answer I had reluctantly reported to my readers twice before, but surely "aggry" couldn't be the real answer. No one would bother to dream up a puzzle capable of vexing what seemed to be millions of people (all of whom seemed to know my e-mail address) if the answer were a dumb old word like "aggry," would they? Where's the fun in that?

My further searches of the internet proved only that (a) nobody else knew of a better answer to the puzzle, and (b) my readers and I were not alone at Wit's End. Numerous Usenet discussion groups, several of which had nothing to do with words or puzzles, had lately been deluged with the "gry" question. There seemed, in fact, to be a net-wide brouhaha in progress, with half the online world pleading for an answer to the puzzle, and the other half telling them to stick a sock in it and take their stupid question out of rec.pets.pit-bulls. Here, at least, was the answer to why I had been receiving so many queries -- someone was crying "gry!" on a very crowded internet.

But still, there I stood, stymied and stranded, with only a limp and unconvincing "aggry" to offer my trusting readers, several of whom seemed capable of being very unpleasant when denied the "zinger," the "common word," that the riddle promised. I was contemplating the probable wisdom of changing my e-mail address when I received yet another message, the subject line, as usual, "Gry." Ho-hum. But, lo and behold, this message wasn't another "gry" question -- it was, at long last, at least a sort of an answer.

From Jeffrey L. Seglin, the message read:

"I know you and countless other word sites and discussion groups have been plagued with the puzzle about the third word ending with "gry." I've read the accounts that list the out-of-use words ending in "gry" from the OED. But perhaps the whole puzzler is more a grade school antic than anything else. The way I heard the setup for the question was this:

"There are three words in the English language that end with "gry." One is hungry and the other is angry. What is the third word? Everyone uses this word every day, everyone knows what it means, and knows what it stands for. If you have listened very closely I have already told you the third word."

"If you read the second sentence you see that the "third" word is "hungry." By the time the puzzler made it to the internet, passed on by people who received the original wording as above but failed to solve it, the precision of the wording changed so it would be impossible to solve. Pretty silly, no?"

Pretty silly, yes. And confusing, too. By the rules of this game, the "third word" could as well be "three" or, interpreting that third sentence very perversely, "what." But it seems clear to me, based on Mr. Seglin's insight, that the question of "gry" is just a silly riddle, mangled on the Information Superhighway, and, personally, I've had enough. I ain't gonna study "gry" no more.


The foregoing exorcism of the Great Gry Riddle has proven only partially successful. Even now, several months after I posted this essay on my web page, I continue to receive about ten letters every week about "gry." Many offer breathless revelations about new and improved "solutions" to the puzzle, usually differing from the one above only in the precise phrasing of the riddle. I have received several letters, however, that pointed to a somewhat more elegant, but, not surprisingly, even more perverse and annoying "original form" of the riddle. The following letter is the most lucid and believable explanation of the "gry" riddle I have seen anywhere, and I present it in hopes that it will set some tortured souls at ease out there. If you do not find this solution satisfying, please do not write to me.

I'm sure that you are sick of hearing about it, but I have the correct answer to the 'gry' trivia. The first problem with these things is that they are inevitably phrased wrong, so that it is impossible to get the question correct. Some answers you have are on the right track, such as 'three', etc., but they still are unsatisfactory. The actual phrasing is as follows:

Angry and hungry are two words that end in '-gry'. There are three words in the English language. What is the third word? Everyone knows what it means and everyone uses it every day. Look closely and I have already given you the third word. What is it?

The answer is 'language'. The key sentences are the second and third. If you just read those two, the answer is obvious. The first sentence is a ruse to throw you off. 'Language' is the only answer that fits the hints that follow those two sentence.

So, all the searching in dictionaries is pointless. I hope you'll pass this information along. Before I finally discovered the correct phrasing of the question and the answer, I looked there and did not find a satisfying answer.

Walt Meier


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Copyright ©1996 Evan Morris