Semantic drift: "khaki"

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Sat Sep 15 17:43:05 UTC 2007

Jonathan Lighter wrote:

> Just what color do people understand nowadays by "khaki"?  All my life I've
> subscribed to the def. of the OED: "dust-coloured; dull brownish yellow,
> drab," a kind of light to medium beige.
>   Recently, though, I've noticed writers using "khaki" to designate the
>   much darker brown,   formerly used for U.S. Army uniforms (as in World
>   War I) and usually designated "olive drab."  Now I find Vietnam veteran
>   Larry Heinemann (in _Black Virgin Mountain_) referring to the dark
>   "olive-green" Army "service uniform" of the '60s as "khakis." Surely
>   Heinemann knows better - or my memory is slipping.

I noticed this some years ago and indeed used it as the lead-in to a piece
about the slippery values of some colour names. See

As I say there, to me khaki is sandy-brown. This was the colour of British
Army uniforms in my extreme youth, just after WW2, when being "in khaki"
meant being in the Army. An olive-green colour is what today's fashion
writers mean by the word. It seems to have changed through the word being
retained for the colour of army uniforms while the colour of the uniforms
has changed.

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: wordseditor at

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