Semantic drift: "khaki"

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sun Sep 16 14:21:23 UTC 2007

Yes, I interpret this as a reference to the summer khaki (tan) uniform, not
the green "Class A" uniform. Khakis were often worn with a tie and jacket
("blouse" in army parlance) and the cut would have been almost identical to
the green uniform, differing only in color and weight of material. The use
of "dress" is probably to distinguish it from the green fatigue uniform.
Khakis could be worn when traveling, especially to and from Vietnam. Also,
the Louisville incident doesn't give a date, but if it was in summer it
reinforces the idea that this is the uniform he's describing.

There's an image of the US Vietnam-era khaki uniform on this page:

But while searched Google Images for that, I also ran across this, a Reuters
photo in China Daily of a soldier in camouflage uniform described as wearing
"khaki." Although, at least one of the colors appears to be khaki:

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Jonathan Lighter
Sent: Saturday, September 15, 2007 4:29 PM
Subject: Re: Semantic drift: "khaki"

It's possible, Dave, but is the context right?  Is it just a slip?:

  2005 Larry Heinemann _Black Virgin Mountain_  (N.Y.: Doubleday) 13 [ref.
to 1965-66]: In Louisville...Saturdays the hotel is packed with...GIs in
ill-fitting dress khakis. _Ibid._ 47: That fall, at Fort Knox, my name comes
down on the levy for Vietnam; I get orders and a month's home leave [to
Chicago]; February.  The morning I am to leave for San Francisco...
  I am packed and tricked out in my dress khakis when [my brother] arrives
at the door.

  I would never second-guess Heinemann on something like this, but the use
of "khakis" struck me.

  And Scot, AFAIK,  when "khakis" refers to military uniforms,the ref. is
always to the color, not the material.  The Navy and Marines still have some
true "khakis."


Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Dave Wilton
Subject: Re: Semantic drift: "khaki"

IIRC, the US Army abandoned its tropical/summer khaki uniforms in the early
1980s, leaving only the olive-drab uniform. I would suspect that if the
meaning shifted it would be after this date, at least in American usage.

During the 60s and 70s there was a true US Army khaki uniform, which would
have been worn in tropical Vietnam. Perhaps Heinemann is referring to the
true khaki uniform and this is being misinterpreted.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Michael Quinion
Sent: Saturday, September 15, 2007 10:43 AM
Subject: Re: Semantic drift: "khaki"

Jonathan Lighter wrote:

> Just what color do people understand nowadays by "khaki"? All my life
> 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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