QA: “Grill” vs “grille”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, you go grill…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about cars.

A: Is it word-related or more about carburetors and fuel injection?

Q: Definitely wordy. The front of the car – is it a GRILL or a GRILLE?

A: So you’d like to grill us about “grill” vs “grille”?

Q: Ummm, yes?

A: Okay, well let’s look at the history of both words. They each arrived in English in the late 1600s, from the French “graille” – meaning gridiron.

Q: American football?

A: No – a “gridiron” was a grated utensil for cooking over a fire. Much like the word “griddle” (a shallow pan), these had been around in English for centuries before “grill” came along.  

Q: Okay, so why did TWO separate words arrive from the French?

A: Good question. You see, the French had a century earlier decided to split “graille” into two separate terms – masculine and feminine.

Q: So it was a holey graille then? Hahaaa.

A: Hilarious. Anyway, they were masculine “gril” and feminine “grille” – and that’s how they arrived in English – apart from the extra L being added.

Q: How cute. And how did their meanings differ?

A: Once they got off the boat from France, masculine “grill” got busy working in the kitchens, used for those gridiron-type jobs, cooking on a fire and so on. Meanwhile, feminine “grille” was put to work on more ornate jobs – such as defining an “ornamental grating”.

Q: So both are based on the same idea, but one word ended up doing the cooking while the other looked pretty?

A: Yeah, that’s it. Which brings us to your question.

Q: It does.

A: For the same reasons as above, the front of a car is typically known as the GRILLE – with the “e”. This differentiates it from say, your barbecue GRILL. 

Q: So anything to do with food these days is “grill”?

A: Yep.

Q: And anything to do with decoration is “grille”?

A: Essentially, yes. Macquarie Dictionary’s various meanings for “grille” include a lattice or openwork screen, as a window or gate”, “a grating or screen in a ventilation system”, “a protective lattice on a helmet” and “an ornamental metal screen at the front of a motor vehicle”.

Q: So if I see the front of a car written as “grill”, is it incorrect?

A: That’s right. It should indeed be “grille”!

Q: Thanks! So it’s definitely NOT a British vs American thing?

A: Nope. Some mistakenly think this, but the above rules hold true for everywhere. One thing to watch out for however is restaurants that might typically be called a “bar and grill” trying to get fancy by using “grille” – much like a shop might use “shoppe”. It’s just marketing.

Q: Good to know. Any other fun facts?

A: Well, the verb “grill” – as in to interrogate someone – dates back to 1894. And just two years later, in 1896, “gridiron” was the first used to describe the sport – in relation to the lines on the field looking like that original namesake cooking surface.

Q: Any Bear Grylls facts?

A: Um, sure. His real name is Edward, he has a black belt in karate, and he would probably grill a bear to survive.

Q: All this talk of grilling reminds me of when my uncle Larry put his BBQ on the roof and insisted on cooking up there.

A: Sounds dangerous!

Q: Absolutely – the steaks were high! Bahahaha.

A: Get out.

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