Lexiculture: vanilla

Cecilia Murrell-Harvey

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Murrell-Harvey, Cecilia. 2014.  Vanilla.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 8. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/vanilla.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Vanilla is a word that I thought at one point, was simply the name of a plant species. I knew the extract of the vanilla plant was used for numerous reasons like flavoring my lip balm, adding depth and dimension to perfume, and making chocolate chip cookies taste better. However as I began my research it became evident that vanilla stands to mean so much more than just a type of plant species. It has shifted from being understood as a description of an actual flavor, to meaning plain or boring, usually not in reference to flavor at all. I first became aware of vanilla meaning more when I asked my sorority sisters what they thought of when I said the word “vanilla.” Most of the sorority members had similar thoughts to mine about vanilla, but one specific sorority sister had a different take on it. Her first response was “Vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life.”  This was the beginning of my realization that vanilla is used as a descriptive word in different settings amongst people. Vanilla has shifted to mean plain or boring in some settings, when in all actuality, it is a plant with a vey strong flavor and smell. The difference between what vanilla is literally and what it has become to mean in various social cultures has led my research to figure out why this divergence from vanilla in a literal sense has happened.

Vanilla is descended from the Spanish word vainilla, or “vanilla plant,” which literally means, “little pod.” Spanish settlers discovered the plant in the 1500’s upon landing in southeastern Mexico and named it from the shape of the pods. Vainilla is diminutive of vaina, or “sheath,” which comes from the Latin word for sheath, vagina (www.etymonline.com).  Vanilla has come a long way from it literal meaning, to its metaphorical meaning of describing something as plain or boring.

Most of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary match the so-called “typical” and literal meaning of vanilla. The first few entries describe vanilla as “ a pod produced by one or other species of the genus Vanilla…” or “the climbing orchid Vanilla planifolia, or other species related to this; the tropical (American) genus to which these belong.” These definitions were used in written context as early as the 1600’s.  The OED does not document vanilla as “plain, basic, conventional; (esp. of a computer, program, or other product) having no interesting or unusual feature; safe, unadventurous,” until the 1970’s. Even though the OED doesn’t list vanilla being used in a different cultural sense until the 1970’s, there is evidence of it being used in a manner not describing flavor as early as the 1940’s.

A LIFE magazine article from 1942 provides an example of vanilla being used to describe something other than flavor. The article was titled “Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans,” (36). It is important to realize that the phrase “plain vanilla” is being used in a very popular magazine that denotes and captures much of what is going on in the world and also popular American culture. The phrase “plain vanilla” would not have been chosen if the readers of the magazine were not familiar with the descriptive choice of words.  It can be inferred that vanilla began to shift from a description of an actual flavor to something meaning plain or boring before the 1940s.

As mentioned earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary does not note vanilla taking on a meaning to describe things as plain or boring until the 1970’s.  This “new” meaning of vanilla is stated within the 1997 draft additions: “used orig. with reference to sexual activity (esp. in vanilla sex).” Most of the examples that the OED lists are all describing something sexual like “vanilla bar, a gay bar that is not SM” (Rodgers, 184), which happens to be pulled from Queens’ Vernacular, a dictionary defining gay slang from the 1970’s. It is interesting to note that most of the OED quotes pertaining to “plain” or “ordinary” are in reference to gay and lesbian sexual behaviors. The Ngram (shown below) for vanilla shows a definite increase of vanilla being used in printed text through the 1970’s, which happens to be a big period for gay rights. Such a significant increase of the word vanilla in the 1970’s brings me to wonder the correlation between vanilla and the culture of the time and how it is used.


The 1970’s were a monumental time period for homosexual people (who are also referred to as the LGBT community). Prior to the 1970’s, people who identified as homosexual were penalized and treated differently (Cruikshank, 2). This was a decade where movements for gay rights really took off. More and more individuals were open about their sexual preference and really pushed for equality amongst society.  This was a period that included the first official gay pride parade (June 28, 1970) and when the American Psychiatric Association voted to not consider homosexuality a mental illness in 1973 (www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/stonewall/).  These events were spurred because society was attempting to accept a new culture being brought into the mix.

The continuing openness of the LGBT community not only brought about the need for different cultural and political events, but also created a new social scene. As it was noted earlier, there is a text sample of vanilla being used to describe a gay bar that is not SM (Rodgers, 184).  SM refers to “sado-masochism, a combination of the words sadism, meaning to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, and masochism, to take pleasure in pain inflicted on you,” as an eloquent entry on Urban Dictionary puts it. Wayne Dynes also uses vanilla in a similar fashion in Homolexis when describing SM aficionados who “dismiss gays of simpler tastes as mere fluffs, who limit themselves to timid exercises in vanilla sex” (Dynes, 123). The LGBT community uses the standardized meaning of vanilla to describe sex or gathering places as plain or boring. One of the many possible reasons the LGBT community probably used vanilla as their choice description is because it seemed innocent. The homosexual community was already, and continues, to face much hostility from general society. Why would they use a descriptive word that would only draw more negative attention to their personal lives? Also, vanilla was and is probably used amongst the LGBT community because it had already been standardized by American society. As it was discussed earlier, people began to standardize vanilla to mean plain or boring since before the 1940’s.  It would only make sense for the LGBT community to use a descriptive word that is already common amongst the society they are attempting to be equal members of.

The LGBT community circa the 1970’s and present day, is not exclusive in using vanilla as a description for sex. The Urban Dictionary has numerous current entries for vanilla, one example from 2003 being: “straight down the line, boring sex…” This entry is non-specific in regards to the word being used in a homosexual content. Both homosexual and heterosexual individuals probably use vanilla to describe sex for similar reasons mentioned before, like it seeming innocent and already being standardized. I would even go far as to say that some individuals might use vanilla to describe his or her sexual encounter, to seem polite. Some individuals may consider “boring” or “plain” as an insult, where saying the sex was “vanilla” at least makes it sound interesting and neither good or bad, just average.

The meaning of vanilla has expanded tremendously since the 1500’s, even beyond its adaptation to being a description for something plain or boring. Vanilla is even used to describe racial differences. The title of a research article discussing the shift of white individuals moving from the highly African American populated Detroit, to suburbs around the city says it all: “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs: Will the Trend toward Racially Separate Communities Continue?” (Bianchi, Colasanto, Farley, Hatchett, Schuman, pg. 1).  The classification of individuals based on race, seems to be a perpetual occurrence. Since Europeans first settled America, there has been segregation amongst peoples of different skin color. It seems society establishes differences amongst groups of people at all points of American history.

It is interesting to note that the “pod-like” plant for which Vanilla originally got its name from is not white in color, yet people choose to use vanilla as word to describe white skin tones. Yes the blossom of the plant is white in color, but the actual appearance for which Vanilla is named, is not white. Nor, is the extract that most people are familiar with.  The eventual standardization of a word leaves society with uneducated members; people do not realize the knowledge behind the words they speak, that make up their languages. This exemplifies how disassociated people are with the goods they are consuming. Our consumer driven economy leads to a society potentially not ever knowing what the original form of a resource or word they use every day.

Vanilla continues to be used in numerous social settings to describe things as plain or boring due to its standardization in America. The word vanilla has even made its way into the world of business. The phrase “plain vanilla bond” is used to describe a United States issued bond that has “ (a) a fixed date (maturity or expiry date) when the amount borrowed (the principal or face value) is due, and (b) the contractual amount of interest which typically is paid every six months in the US and once a year on the European continent” (bizterms.net).  “Plain vanilla” used on its own, refers to a swap or derivative financial instrument that is issued with standard features (bizterms.net). It seems like vanilla is used in a way to make financial deals seem more approachable or safe. I think this is very representative of the financial burdens our society has gone through. America has had 2 stock market crashes, both ending with our economy struggling to get back on its feet. People who witnessed these crashes are probably more likely to invest in something labeled “vanilla” or low risk, because they have less to lose. On the other end of it, businessmen see these “vanilla” investments as boring, because they would rather be dealing with higher-risk financial deals to turn more of a profit. Regardless, the head businessmen of the finance and business departments recognize that they need to somehow appeal to a society that has been hurt economically before.

We are well into the 21st century, and vanilla still continues to be chosen as a descriptive word for even potential significant discoveries in the field of physics. Physicists had thought they had discovered a boson particle, but it turned out to be “pretty vanilla” (http://io9.com/).  Basically the physicists were not impressed with the final results of a test, deeming it a boring, or “vanilla,” particle in their world of physics.

I never realized a word as simple as vanilla could be used in so many different contexts. Since its first debut in the 1500’s, vanilla has underwent a major shift in meaning, from something that describes a flavor to something that describes a color or means boring, plain, or standard. The development of vanilla has shown that “the longer a word is embedded in the language, the more likely it is to develop transferred or figurative uses… “(Knowles, 135). The different uses of the word vanilla have shown insight into the different contexts it was and continues to be used in.

I now better understand the statement: “vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life,” from my sorority sister when I asked about the word vanilla. I understand now that vanilla is used in so many ways because of the standardization our society places upon vanilla, and among other words too. I now question what other words have a similar history like vanilla. I think it is important to note also, that all of this information pertaining to the definition of vanilla is strictly based in the United States. It would be beneficial to find any differences the word might have in other nations. Obviously not every nation has the same cultural history, so it is very possible that vanilla could have diverged from its original meaning in a completely different way. People in China may not have a clue what someone from America is talking about when they talk about a “vanilla” course at school.  I think a shift in meaning of different words like vanilla, is unavoidable. Like William Safire wrote in his article, On Language: Forewords March:  “Here, then, is a word coming to mean in slang the opposite of its standard meaning. Farewell, tasty vanilla.”


Bizterms.net. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <bizterms.net>.

Cruikshank, Margaret. The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. N.p.: Pyschological Press, 1992. 1-27. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=iVJ1TtTjXOcC&dq=homosexual+movement+1970’s&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s&gt;.

Knowles, Elizabeth. How to Read a Word. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 62-135. Print.

Farley, Reynolds, Howard Schuman, Suzanne Bianchi, Diane Colastano, and Shirley Hatchett. “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs:” Will the Trend toward Racially Separate Communities Continue?” Social Science Research . Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/22472/0000013.pdf?sequence=1&gt;.

 Hershey’s. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <http://www.hersheys.com/our-story.aspx#/the-man&gt;.

Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=vanilla&allowed_in_frame=0&gt;.

Oxford English Dictionary . N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

Rodgers, Bruce. The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon. N.p.: Straight Arrow Books, 1972. 100-84. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Safire, William. “On Language; Forewords March.” New York Times 3 Nov. 1985. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/1985/11/03/magazine/on-language-forewords-march.html&gt;.

Timeline: Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/stonewall/

“Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans.” LIFE 19 Oct. 1942: 35 -36. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=UUEEAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt;.

Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=vanilla&gt;.

U.S. History. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ushistory.org/&gt;

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  1. Thank you for this interesting survey of vanilla. Three and a half thoughts.

    First, one might amusingly riff on what “French vanilla” would therefore mean in the continuum of “boring” sex. Perhaps not quite so boring, in the same way as a French kiss seems more salacious than regular kiss?

    Second, I’d modify the immediate conclusion of vanilla as “boring” by proposing an intermediate step. In the earliest example cited, “A LIFE magazine article from 1942 provides an example of vanilla being used to describe something other than flavor. The article was titled ‘Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans,’ (36),” I read this sense of vanilla as “with nothing added in”–a sort of what you see is what you get kind of policy. The implication is that you arrive at all kinds of ice cream by using vanilla as a vase and then adding a flavor or other ingredients. This would (could) then also be the sense intended by gay folks in the 70s; vanilla sex is sex with nothing (unusual) added; just the standard oral/anal fandango + kissing, &c. And so then, if you want walnuts, fudge ripple, or crushed cherries in your (vanilla) ice ream, this baseline sexual behavior might well come to mean “boring” or “plain”. I have certainly heard vanilla used by people to describe their own preferred sexual practices without intending any pejorative implication. For them, vanilla is not bad (or plain or boring); it just has nothing (besides vanilla) added to it. This sense of “nothing added in” seems to accord also with the business use of the word cited. It is worth noting, then, that gourmet vanilla ice creams that visually include vanilla seed may precisely have less “popular reach” because it offers a vanilla with “something added in.”

    As the half-thought, while language practice certainly plays the vanilla/chocolate game to add problematic food metaphors to race relations–and the use of food metaphors for people in a consumer culture can hardly be anything but problematic, especially where adoption of children gets into the picture–this strikes me as very late to the game and a kind of afterthought. The sorority sister saying “vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life,” certainly points to a conflation of the racial and sexual sense of vanilla (and chocolate), while “Chocolate Cities, Vanilla Suburbs” just seems vulgar and wrong-headed. All of this points to the implied desirability that a food metaphor carries: unless someone sets out to generate disgust with good metaphors (as Huxley does at the beginning for Brave New World), then generally such metaphors carry a sense that the things described are yummy. thus, the very idea at work in the sorority sister’s usage explicitly emphasizes the “mixing” involved in “chocolate”. Maybe this is why the “Chocolate Cities, Vanilla Suburbs” seems in poor taste (pun intended) and wrong-headed; it precisely involves separating, rather than mixing.

    Third, I appreciate the archaeology of this piece, locating the twist in vanilla that achieved a much wider social parlance (and also specifically sexualized overtones) with the LGBT community in the 70s. But I’d like to see somehow more credit given. One may regularly her “vanilla” these days in a sexual context but clearly–as the sorority sister example shows–without much cognizance, much less acknowledgment, where this change of usage originates. in other words, this seems like a piece of cultural misappropriation, and it would be nice if the article could at least acknowledge that as such.

    This leaves unanswered how a food metaphor got picked up in the first place. No doubt, once “nothing mixed in” gets linked up with “boring” or “plain,” the rest of the evolution can follow that trajectory, but why did gay people (most likely in San Francisco or New York) start resorting to the food metaphor in the first place, and also specifically why in the 70s (if it started then; the era marks simply one of much greater visibility and DIY print media).

    More research to unearth things needed there.

    Thank you again for the article (and the post).

    • In the card game Magic: the Gathering, you see precisely that kind of use of French Vanilla vs. Vanilla. A vanilla creature (a kind of card in the game) has no extra abilities at all. A french vanilla creature has only a single simple (called “keyword”) ability. I believe this usage started as a trade term in the M:tG development team and spread to the players, but I don’t have a source on that. (If such a source exists, it is probably somewhere in Mark Rosewater’s writings.)


  2. This is a very interesting article. One thought that occurs to me is that the image that has given rise to ‘vanilla’ as a metaphor for ‘default, plain, bland — and WHITE’ does not arise from the vanilla plant and its flavour at all, but rather, from an association with vanilla ice-cream. Keen cooks will connect vanilla with its distinctive, and far from bland, taste, and see a mental image of a dark-brown pod, or at the very least a small bottle of (brown) liquid essence, but I suspect that for many, especially Americans, who are far keener consumers of ice-cream than most Europeans, the first picture to come to mind is of a scoop of white/pale yellow ice-cream without a very noticeable taste, because the vanilla flavour in most plain commercial ‘vanilla’ ice-cream is very weak and artificial.

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