Beige

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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 bigiarellaBigiolino (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.

— UKL

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.


Out Here coverUrsula 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.

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Beige — 11 Comments

  1. What fascinates me about color words is that they seem to be infinitely divisible. The number of close relatives of beige is stupendous. I will just mention the one Ursula didn’t: taupe.

  2. I tend to think of beige as the color of a very pale brown egg–white with a touch of brown (and I suppose brown contains yellow in it somewhere). One thing about beige and all the off-white tones is that they make a marvelous setting for something you do want to draw attention to. Unless (like me) you have so much yellow in your skin tone that beige makes you look jaundiced or dead.

    And I so wish that it was possible, at this time of year, for a woman of more than 25 to find clothes that aren’t the same damned spring-toned pastels. I don’t mind color–hell, I like color, but I don’t want the same damned strong colors every year, and I don’t want the sort of “sweet” colors that spring and Easter seem to bring out in clothing designers.

  3. I am in awe of your prowess Ursula, at writing an engaging post about beige.
    I think there needs to be a movement to un-beige beige. To reclaim it in fact from the monstrous depths to which designers and paint manufacturers have consigned it.

    Shades of Beige Arise and take your place among the pantheon of praiseworthy colours of the rainbow!

  4. What an evocative and witty piece of writing. I’m a painter, and I can picture in my mind all the fine earth hues Ursula lists, and see them around me in the landscape. Where textiles are concerned, ‘natural’ is to me a paler form of beige. ‘Natural’ has warmth, but it is the undyed colour of canvas or French linen. Not the ‘greige’ of Italian linen. Not the same as calico, either; that’s too yellow, and too bright to be beige. My idea of beige is UKL’s – a light brownish grey which could become tan.

  5. Pingback: in defense of beige and truth | Tailfeather

  6. With apologies for off-topic pedantry…

    The 1971 2-volume compact OED is a reprint of the 1928 edition, but the entries under B date from the first fascicles published in 1894. The supplement came out in 1933, mostly updating the earlier entries.

    There is a newer one volume compact version of the 1989 second edition OED. Alas the print is even smaller, although it does come with a much stronger magnifying glass.

    They’re currently working on the third edition which should come out within 30 years…

    The first time I remember hearing the term beige as a slur against fashion was last week when my youngest, very teenage son asked why I always wear such beige clothes. Confusing to me since I don’t own any clothes that I would consider beige. Turns out he meant colors that are drab, dark, and boring. Browns, black, dirt colors. Didn’t I have any sense of fashion?

  7. I was delighted to read this! Beige, and its cultural impact, are bit of a hobby of mine. It began about three years again while having an extended stay in fairly undecorated hotel room which happened to be primarily beige in its trimming. I had heard rumor years ago about fabled behavioral studies of mice in single colored environments (red = crazy mice, etc.) and began to wonder the effects of humans submerged in beige.

    I made a comedic video about it. Then two years later, on a similar stay, I revisited and distilled the idea: http://vimeo.com/8783195

    During that time I happened across a post from NASA. Do you know what the average color of the universe is? http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap091101.html
    Now, I’m not sure what “average color” means or how one would possibly go about measuring it, but it certainly lends some cosmic weight to what is so easily dismissed as dull.

  8. What a great post! Should go into an anthology of colour writing – if such a thing exists. If it doesn’t, it ought to.

    I had never heard of greige. There, my spell-check underlines it. Maybe it’s an American word? (I’m from London.)

    My wife, when I told her there was such a word, did not believe it. The online OED convinced her.

    I did check it’s etymology on the Web, and one of the opinions given is, on thefreedictionary.com:

    [French grège, from Italian (seta) greggia, raw (silk), from greggio, gray, of Germanic origin.]

    – so it may link with your grigio…

    Do we need an Italian here to clarify the matter? Or would that only confuse us?

    Colour words and their histories are almost as fascinating as colour itself. The wikipedia page on blue has this:

    The word blue is thought to be cognate with black, blond, originally designating a discoloured, pale, washed-out shade. Through a Proto-Indo-European root, it is also linked with Latin flavus (“yellow”; see flavescent and flavine), with Greek phalos (white), French blanc (white, blank) (borrowed from Old Frankish), and with Russian ?????, belyi (“white,” see beluga), and Welsh blawr (grey) all of which derive (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhel- meaning “to shine, flash or burn”, (more specifically the word bhle-was, which meant light coloured, blue, blond, or yellow), whence came the names of various bright colours, and that of colour black from a derivation meaning “burnt” (other words derived from the root *bhel- include bleach, bleak, blind, blink, blank, blush, blaze, flame, fulminate, flagrant and phlegm).

    So if you want pale and washed out shades – you could go for blue, or black or even blond.