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A grisly scene: the remains of the head and limbs of teacher Anselm Hemberger exhumed by the police in Berlin, Germany, in 1920. Hemberger had been shot twice in the head two years earlier by Walter Protze, who had been having an affair with Hemberger’s wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who was Protze’s aunt, had instigated him to commit the murder and had helped to dismember and dispose of the body. During the trial, evidence was led that Hemberger had abused his wife.

Etymology 1[edit]

From late Old English grisliċ, from *grísan (to shudder with horror; to tremble, to be terrified; to make tremble, to terrify; to agrise, grise) (unattested but implied in á-grísan)[1] + -lic (-ly, suffix forming adjectives meaning ‘characteristic of, pertaining to’). The word may also be an aphetic form of Old English ongrislic, *ongrisenlic, the past participle of *ongrísan (to agrise).[2] Compare Danish grusom, Middle Dutch grezelijc (modern Dutch grijzelijk), Middle High German grisenlich (modern German grässlich, grausen).


grisly (comparative grislier, superlative grisliest)

  1. Horrifyingly repellent; gruesome, terrifying.
    The photographs of the killings depict a grisly scene.
    • 1387–1400, Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knightes Tale”, in The Canterbury Tales, [Westminster: William Caxton, published 1478], OCLC 230972125; republished as William Thynne, editor, The Woorkes of Geffrey Chaucer, Newly Printed, with Diuers Addicions, which were Neuer in Printe before: With the Siege and Destruccion of the Worthy Citee of Thebes, Compiled by Ihon Lidgate, Monke of Berie. As in the Table More Plainly Dooeth Appere, London: Imprinted at London, by Ihon Kyngston, for Ihon Wight, dwellying in Poules Churchyarde, 1561, OCLC 932919585, folio III, verso:
      Whan that Arcite to Thebes comen was / Full ofte a day he ſwelte and ſaid alas / For ſene his lady ſhall be neuer mo / And ſhortely to conclude, all his wo / So mikell ſoro we made neuer creature / That is or ſhalbe, while the world may dure / His ſlepe, his meate, his drinke is him byraft / That leane he waxeth, and drye as a ſhaft / His eyen holow, and griſly to beholde / His hewe pale, and ſalowe as aſhen colde / And ſolitary he was, and euer alone / And wailing all the night, making mone
    • 1592, G[abriel] H[arvey], “[Greene’s Memorial; or Certain Funeral Sonnets.] Sonnet XVII. His Exhortation to Atonement and Love.”, in Fovre Letters, and Certaine Sonnets, Especially Touching Robert Greene, and Other Parties by Him Abused: but Incidently of Diuers Excellent Persons, and Some Matters of Note. To All Courteous Mindes, that will Voutchsafe the Reading, London: Imprinted by Iohn Wolfe, OCLC 84013514; republished as Four Letters, and Certain Sonnets, Especially Touching Robert Greene, and Other Parties by Him Abused: But Incidentally of Divers Excellent Persons, and Some Matters of Note. To All Courteous Minds that will Vouchsafe the Reading, London: From the private press of Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown; printed by T[homas] Davison, Whitefriars, London, [1814], OCLC 220598379, page 64:
      Magnes and many things attractive are, / But nothing so allective under skies, / As that same dainty amiable star, / That none but grisly mouth of hell defies.
    • 1610, Richard Niccols, “The Indvction”, in A Winter Nights Vision; being an Addition of such Princes Especially Famous, who were Exempted in the Former Historie, part IV, London: Felix Kyngston, OCLC 79350736; republished as Joseph Haslewood, editor, Mirror for Magistrates, volume II, part II, London: Printed for Lackington, Allen, and Co. Finsbury Square; and Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orms, and Brown, Paternoster Row, 1815, OCLC 977145221, page 548:
      Then clad in cloake of mistie fogges the darke night vp did come, / And with grim grislie looke did seeme to bid me get me home; []
    • 1878, John Boyle O'Reilly, “On the Trail”, in Moondyne: A Story from the Under-world, London: George Routledge and Sons, published 1879, OCLC 39983928; republished as Moondyne: A Story of Convict Life in Australia, London: George Routledge & Sons, Limited, Broadway House, Ludgate Hill, [1880s], OCLC 83033698, book first, pages 23–24:
      It was sore travelling for horse and man under the blazing sun, with no food nor water save what he pressed from the pith of the palms, and even these were growing scarce. The only life on the plains was the hard and dusty scrub. Every hour brought a more hopeless and grislier desolation.
    • 1968 summer, Hayden Carruth, “Making It New”, in The Hudson Review, volume XXI, number 2, New York, N.Y.: Hudson Review, Inc., ISSN 2325-5935, OCLC 920393805; reprinted as “From ‘Making It New’ [Body Rags]”, in Howard Nelson, editor, On the Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying (Under Discussion), Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0-472-09376-2, page 75:
      In his [Galway Kinnell's] new book, Body Rags, he has brought this style to a kind of perfection, especially in two poems about the killing of animals, "The Porcupine" and "The Bear." These are the grisliest poems I have ever read.
    • 2017 January 19, Peter Bradshaw, “T2 Trainspotting review – choose a sequel that doesn’t disappoint”, in The Guardian[1], London, archived from the original on 20 January 2017:
      Perhaps you have to have seen the first film to like this one; to feel, like the young fans of Harry Potter, that without knowing or wanting it, you have grown up with its grisly protagonists.
Alternative forms[edit]
Usage notes[edit]

Not to be confused with gristly or grizzly.


Etymology 2[edit]

From grisle (horror, terror) +‎ -ly; compare Middle Dutch griselike, Middle Low German grislike.


grisly (comparative more grisly, superlative most grisly)

  1. (obsolete) In a horrible or terrible manner; in a terrifying way.


  1. ^ grise, v.”, in OED Online, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1900.
  2. ^ grisly, adj.”, in OED Online, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1900.