Beige is the only color I can think of that is used as a fashion sneer. “Everything she wears is beige,” with a falling, faintly snarling tone to the word. Or, more personally, “Oh she’s such a beige person…”
Of course you could say that beige is hardly a color at all. For a moment today I thought it wasn’t even a word.
When I want to write about anything that’s likely to be in the Oxford English Dictionary, I look it up there first. I have the cumbrous 2-vols.-w.-magnifying-glass edition. Cumbrous but invaluable. It tells you where the word came from and who first used it when and all kinds of good nerd stuff like that. So I looked it up – and it wasn’t there.
That had never happened to me before with the OED. It wasn’t there? A word wasn’t in the OED? Beige wasn’t in the dictionary?
Is the world coming to an end, word by word?
After I had sat awhile stunned, magnifying glass useless in my trembling hand, it occurred to me that after all, beige is a French word. The OED doesn’t list words in other languages, it can’t do everything, after all, and maybe beige was still considered foreign and printed in italics in England when the entry was made in the OED, perhaps years before its first edition in 1971 — yes, almost certainly, B being so early in the alphabet. And I’d heard the word in England pronounced very frenchly, behzh, not comfortably diphthonged into bayzh or bayge, as in America. So I put away the magnifying glass and tucked big fat Vol I back in its case and took down the French-English dictionary next to it.
I have to admit it was a relief to find beige right where it ought to be. “Beige, adj. [f. It. bigio] Beige, natural; serge ~, serge of undyed wool; une robe ~, a beige frock.”
Frock? Ah yes. The Concise Oxford French Dictionary is British too. . . But since its first definition of beige (in French) is beige (in English), the 1952 COFD had got a jump on the 1971 OED.
I liked the second definition, “natural,” and the mention of undyed wool. But before pursuing these I wanted to find out about bigio, so I took down my Hoare’s Italian Dictionary (a classic, and the source of the classic question, What does she need a dictionary for?) and looked it up. Bigio means grey. It is the basis of the name of several Italian birds, dimishing sweetly as they go: A warbler is una bigia, a black-cap is una bigiola, a whitethroat is una bigiarella. Bigiolino (the little grey one) is an edible fungus, and bigiolone (the big grey one) is a fungus which I expect you’d better not try eating because Hoare doesn’t say anything about edible.
The Italian word for grey that I knew was grigio, so I looked it up too and there it was; but no birds or mushrooms. I don’t have a real Italian-Italian dictionary, which might distinguish usages, so it’s just my guess that grigio might be the “colder” kind of grey that shades into blue, and bigio the “warmer” kind shading off towards tan. Chalk pastels come in these two distinct kinds of grey, with a full range from light to dark in each; and you need both, cold for sky, warm for earth.
So, after this little trip to Europe, back to beige in English. My original reason for writing about it was: Why is it looked down upon? Why is it used as a sneer-word?
Its use in English is mostly for clothes and wall paint. And I guess, in clothes and wall paint, it’s hard to make a statement in beige. You need screaming lime, or hot fuchsia, or stark black. Beige avoids making statements. It turns away and murmurs; you can barely hear it. It’s an introverted color. Unadventurous. Uneventful. Dull.
The reason I got thinking about it was that I realised about half my clothes are either beige or very near it, and most of the rest (leaving out an enclave of bluejeans and blue t-shirts) are black, which goes well with beige. I hate the Spring catalogues that come out thirty seconds after Xmas with all the pretty sherbet pastels and the bright redwhiteandblues and the lilac polka dots and there won’t ever be any hope of anything beige until next October and then they’ll probably be off on one of their screaming lime kicks again.
If I had black or brown skin I still wouldn’t go for screaming lime, but I’d be a sucker for crimsons and scarlets and golds. I love the colors and they’d look good on me. If. But they don’t, because my skin is beige. Most of the year it’s a kind of fishy, pallid beige; sometimes in summer by sitting in the sunshine the way the dermatologists say we must never never do, I achieve a warmer tone, a feebly reddish speckled tan, like a farm egg. Never more than that.
So, do I wear beige as camouflage – to make me disappear?
I think it’s the other way round. I think it’s because if I wear scarlet or screaming lime, that’s when I disappear — all you can see is the clothes. Grigio hair, bigio skin, pouf – gone – dimmed to invisibility. Real camouflage. If I wanted to be seen, I’d have to take off all my gorgeous lime and scarlet clothes and appear in my natal, naked beigeness. That would be a statement, I guess.
So what did I want to say about the color? Was I just being defensive about my skin and my clothes? There was something more than that. A positive feeling. A defense of beige itself. A real liking for that range of color – the bigios, the gentle, subtle, lively earth colors. The color of unbleached, undyed wool. The dun of a dun horse. The color (aside from the black and white and pink etc. of their markings and decorations) of the feathers of sparrows and towhees and finches and quail and robins and phoebes …. a sort of default feather color. The tan or dun or light brown of many lovely, common kinds of wood. The color of many rocks — sandstones, volcanic ash, beach sand. The color of very old paper. The soft color of dust.
PS. After writing all that, I remembered that at the end of my 2-vol OED is a Supplement of newer (or dirtier) words that didn’t get into the first edition. So I looked for beige in the Supplement, and there it was, yessirree, at least two inches of it in agate type. All interesting, including the fact that it was an undyed cloth before it was a color, but not really adding anything to what I wanted to say here, except for defining it as “yellowish grey.”
I’m still thinking about whether I agree with that or not. Yellowish? I’d be inclined to call beige a light brownish grey or greyish brown, or a shade between grey and dun. But perhaps, without the very faint hint of a yellowish tone, it would shade off into greige? Greige is, I believe, a strictly English-language word, made up by textile and fashion people, and a nice one, too: exact, expressive. I’d like to have a greige silk jacket right now. Come on, catalogues, enough with the screaming lime.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.