Jell vs. gel. Go!

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.

Merriam-Webster Online:

  • 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.

16 thoughts on “Jell vs. gel. Go!

  1. Nathan says:

    Gel (n) – a colored acetate film used in motion picture lighting to change the color temperature of a light source.

    Does that clear things up?

  2. Brian White says:

    Nathan: Well, I didn’t want to muddy the waters. My wife is a theatrical lighting electrician, so I know all about gel.

  3. Nathan says:

    I live to muddy the waters. :D

  4. Sean White says:

    This is pretty fascinating for me. Being a musician, this comes up frequently in terms of bands (or at least a group of musicians) playing together. I had always assumed it was gel before. I’m not sure I even knew that jell was a proper usage.

  5. Lauren Scattolini says:

    I have been working with “gel” (the colored acetate film) for so long that jell doesn’t even seem right to me without an “o” on the end. Speaking of which- I am at work and have to fetch 2 pieces of L161 (Lee Filters Medium Blue)

  6. katie schwing says:

    The Slot hath spoken.

  7. JD says:

    As a Brit, I’d plump for ‘gel’. In fact I don’t recall ever seeing ‘jell’ used in this context.

    Nice blog, by the way.

  8. TCM says:

    Jell? Oh!

  9. Shawn D says:

    Just thought I’d chime in late and add that the AP Stylebook and its editors recommend “to jell”.

    By the way, interesting blog. Bookmarked.

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  11. Darlene says:

    I too was having trouble finding the definitive answer. I love you for saving me further research. Check out (possibly) Bill Walsh weighing in!

  12. Jeanette says:

    Oxford Dictionary of American English:
    jell |jel|
    verb [ intrans. ]
    (of jelly or a similar substance) set or become firmer : the stew is jelling.
    • (of a project or idea) take a definite shape; begin to work well : everything seemed to jell for the magazine.
    • (of people) relate well to one another : it’s gratifying seeing everybody jelling.

  13. In the first volume of the Artemis Fowl series (by Eoin Colfer), the author writes: “Some commotion below broke into her thoughts. Something that didn’t gel with the nighttime noises.”

  14. patrick67000 says:

    Eoin Colfer, in Chapter 4 of the first Artemis Fowl book, writes: “Some commotion below broke into her thoughts. Something that didn’t gel with the nighttime noises.”

  15. shamontiel says:

    I had the same issue. When I looked it up in the dictionary, none of the examples seemed to clarify which term should be used so I gave up and used “connected with” instead.

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