At work the other night, I came across a word that always vexes me, and which seems to come up frequently in sports stories. I forget exactly what the sentence was, but it was something like “Because of the players’ inexperience, the team has yet to jell.”
I can never, ever, remember if it is supposed to be jell or gel when you are trying to say that something (like a team) has come together nicely. I was on deadline and didn’t have time to look it up, so I did the next best thing, I asked. The guy who sits next to me (and who has been copy editing since before I was born) told me confidently that it is jell.
So I left it alone and moved on. But I wanted to check up on my own why jell was the way to go.
So today, I looked through four style guides — the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bill Walsh’s Lapsing Into a Comma and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words — all reliable sources when I have usage questions.
Zero, zip, nada, naught. None of those books had a peep about jell and gel.
So I tried the dictionary. Or dictionaries, rather.
- jell: Date 1869. intransitive verb. 1. to come to the consistency of jelly; congeal , set 2. to take shape and achieve distinctness; become cohesive. transitive verb. to cause to jell
- gel: Date 1917. intransitive verb. 1. to change into or take on the form of a gel; set 2. JELL 2 (meaning, go look at the second definition of jell).
Oxford English Dictionary:
- jell: Date 1830-1840. 1. intransitive verb. To become a jelly; to congeal or jelly. Also figuratively, to take definite or satisfactory shape; = CRYSTALLIZE. Compare to GEL 2. transitive verb. JELLIFY; Also figuratively, to give shape to; to make clear and definite. Hence participle jelled.
- gel: Date 1917. intransitive verb. To become a gel; figuratively, JELL. Hence participle gelled.
Webster’s New World:
- jell: No date. intransitive, transitive verb. 1. a) to become or cause to become jelly. b) to become or cause to become somewhat firm, as gelatin does; set. 2. [Informal] to take or cause to take definite form; crystallize. [plans that haven't jelled yet]
- gel: No date. intransitive verb. 1. to form a gel; jellify. 2. [British] JELL 2.
All the sources agree that jell is a back-formation of jelly, and the verb gel comes from the noun gel.
So, what did I learn?
That they both mean the same thing. The definitions even refer to each other. Which is why we have style guides, to tell us what to use so we don’t have to agonize over it. Or to ignore if we don’t like the reasoning.
The closest thing to guidance that I got was in Webster’s New World, which tells us that gel is a British usage when used to mean the same thing as jell. And jell seems to be the older word. So I guess jell is the one to use (in the U.S., anyway), even though it really doesn’t seem to matter at all. Most people would understand either in that context.