Gaudy vs. gawdy

Gaudy and gawdy are different spellings of the same word. Gaudy is recommended by most dictionaries and usage guides, but gawdy is listed as an accepted variant. In either spelling, the word means (1) showy in a tasteless or vulgar way; or it refers to (2) a festival or raucous party, or (3) a showy ornament.


Though gaudy is much more common, it is easy to find instances of gawdy in current news publications—for example:


But before all the gawdy reflections in the yuletide mirror fragment and filter away, let me ask you this. [Milford Mercury]

Shoes, flip-flops and ripped clothing piled up a foot high across some parts of the 80-metre bridge linking Phnom Penh to a gawdy man-made entertainment. [Irish Times]

And the classy black and white shot for the single … is a huge change from her usual bright and gawdy look. [The Sun]

But most use the more dictionary-approved gaudy, as seen here:

Birds develop increasingly gaudy plumage to attract mates (or they should). [Wall Street Journal]

Diouf’s gaudy machines will cause a stir in genteel Milngavie when he rolls up to training at Gers’ Murray Park complex. [Scottish Daily Record]

Dubai’s infrastructure, relative liberalism and gaudy villas may make it the natural investment banking hub for the Arab world. [Financial Times]


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  1. wade allison says:

    I beg to differ. This seems to be a US view to me. I think that there are two meanings. The first one is an adjective “in flamboyantly bad taste”. The second one is usually a noun describing a jolly or party, derived from “gaudeamus igitur”, let us therefore enjoy ourselves. In Oxford feasts are called Gaudies. They are gaudy but not gawdy. Useage may have allowed the first meaning to be spelt gaudy as well as gawdy. Gawdy always refers to the first meaning. There is no w in the Latin, I believe. This is my useage although I have not done a literature search.

    • Grammarist says:

      This post isn’t based on our own opinion. It’s a report based on research into how the words are used by English-speakers in different types of writing from throughout the English-speaking world, and it is common for this sort of information to clash with traditional spelling or usage, with individuals’ preferences, and with etymology-based logic. In actual usage from this century, the two words are used interchangeably, with “gaudy” being much more common. Also, while we usually don’t rely on dictionaries in our research because they can be unreliable for current usage, for what it’s worth we find no dictionaries that make the differentiation you describe. Oxford, for one, simply lists “gawdy” as a variant of “gaudy.”

      There definitely was a trend in 19th-century writing to use “gawdy” for showy trinkets and “gaudy” for parties, but it is not borne out in modern spelling.

      This isn’t to say that one’s own experience can’t differ. Obviously, individuals and communities can and do have their own preferences. We tend to have a broad scope here.

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