The Grammarphobia Blog

A question of beige

Q: A story in the NY Times Magazine about an outspoken academic who studies wolves says he stands out because scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species.” I googled the phrase “beige species” and found nothing. Puzzling, huh?

A: The word “beige” is sometimes used metaphorically to mean bland, similar to “vanilla.”

One of the definitions for “beige” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is “lacking distinction.” The dictionary adds that it has the same sense as “vanilla” when used to mean “plain, ordinary, conventional.”

So in noting that scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species,” the Times writer is saying that scientists can be overly careful and conventional.

Merriam-Webster is the only standard dictionary in which we’ve found this figurative sense of the word, and it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

However, the usage appears in several slang references in our library. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, says the adjective means “bland; uninteresting; unimaginative; boring.”

The earliest Random House example is from a Sept. 14, 1982, article in the New York Times about the spread of Valley Girl speak beyond California: “BEIGE: Boring, for sure.”

The citation is from a brief glossary at the end of the article. Earlier, the writer says it “would be, you know, a really beige thing to admit” being unaware of the upsurge in uptalk.

This later example is from Tricks of the Trade, a 1988 movie about a woman whose husband is killed in the apartment of a prostitute: “Maybe that’s what was wrong with your marriage—too beige.”

And we’ve expanded this Random House citation from Slang U., a 1991 dictionary of college slang by the UCLA linguist Pamela Munro: “beige boring: My date talked about his stamp collection the whole night. What a beige personality!”

Finally, here’s another example that we’ve found in Munro’s book, which includes contributions from students in her slang seminar: “my life was as beige as June Cleaver’s meatloaf.”

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