Aw richts is pitten by

Every year for the past several years, I’ve had my students in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course do an exercise.  I give them the following text, without any explanation, and ask them to get into small groups and to translate it into English (without searching for it online):

Aw richts is pitten by. Nae pairt o this darg shuid be doobelt, hained in ony kin o seestem, or furthset in ony shape or by ony gate whitsomeiver, ‘ithoot haein leave frae the writer afore-haund. A hae nae pleens whan the abuin is duin for tae fordle the Scots leed in eddication, sae lang’s naebody is makkin siller oot o’t. Ony speirins write us.

The student response usually starts with bafflement, followed by a tentative effort to take on a few obvious words like ‘eddication’, followed by some speculation that it is perhaps Old or Middle English.   I then give them a perplexing hint: ‘This text was written within your lifetimes’, and then give them two more minutes to work on it before we discuss it.

The text above is in Scots, and is taken from the Wir Ain Leed site promoting the Scots language.  As you’ll see (if you haven’t already worked it out), it’s a perfectly ordinary copyright notice.   Once the students realize that this is a genre of text with which they are familiar, there’s a sort of a-ha moment.  Once somebody identifies it as Scots (which really, shouldn’t be so hard since the word ‘Scots’ appears in the text), I read it out loud in its entirety in my not-too-bad but certainly-not-perfect Groundskeeper-Willie-esque Scots.  Once the language and the genre have been established, the rest of the translation, which we do collaboratively as a whole class, moves along well.

The point of the exercise is first of all, to get the students to reflect on what constitutes English (or any language) by prodding at its boundaries.  With Scots, there are still some scholars who would insist that this is ‘Scots English’ – i.e., a dialect of English, albeit a fairly divergent one. Others (I think most, these days) define it as one of two languages descended from Middle English, the other being English, of course, and separate out Scots proper (the language) from various Scottish English registers.

It’s a handy little exercise.   It lets me talk about ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy‘, and then to compare and contrast the Scots case with Yiddish. It lets me introduce (and complicate) the question of mutual intelligibility (with reference to cases like Serbian/Croatian); most students are (sensibly) reluctant to define what they just read as English on the grounds that they couldn’t understand it.  It lets me introduce the distinction between ‘a Scottish accent’ and the broader range of features that constitute  dialects or languages, and to link this to our text (McWhorter’s The Power of Babel).

Like I wrote earlier, I do this every year.  Just by chance, ‘Aw richts is pitten by’ was on the schedule for yesterday’s class, just as the Scottish independence referendum looms large in the minds of many.  Even American college students, who are stereotypically characterized as having no awareness of anything else in the world, may have heard John Oliver’s hilarious rant on the subject.  To talk about this issue, just at this decisive political moment, brought an additional level of analysis into play.

I don’t have a horse in this race, which actually surprises me a bit, since I lived for a decade in Quebec as an ethnolinguistic minority amidst an environment of secession fever.  But then, of course, most Scots don’t speak Scots regularly, if at all, and the debate there isn’t about linguistic nationalism to any significant degree.  Regardless of how it all turns out, it cast a poignant light on a favoured classroom moment, at a critical juncture in the history of two nations.

Review: Bloch, Anthropology and the cognitive challenge

Bloch, Maurice. 2012. Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  234 pp.

Reviewed by Sarah Carson (Wayne State University)

Maurice Bloch’s ambitious work, Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge, suggests nothing less than a complete overhaul of the discipline. Bloch first discusses the rift between social and natural science and how it would benefit both groups to reconcile and understand each other. This opposition is framed in terms of the omnipresent nature versus culture debates (although Bloch avoids the word “culture,” finding the concept problematic and imprecise, preferring “history”). Bloch explains the dichotomy’s falsity as humans being “psychologically and physically one at all levels,” and therefore that cognitive and social scientists are talking about the same thing, the human animal, and should pay more attention to each other to understand a more complete picture of human life within a naturalist framework. Interdisciplinary research and the benefits of cognitive scientists and anthropologists working together form the basis of the book, and Bloch returns to these points throughout.

Bloch insists that the concerns of anthropologists and natural scientists about each other can be worked past. For instance, the innate capacity for genetically transmitted knowledge makes many anthropologists uneasy, because arguments about people’s behavior resulting from biological inheritance can devolve into racist or sexist ideas—beliefs that one racial group is naturally more intelligent, for instance. These are bad arguments for multiple reasons, including “race” being a social rather than biological concept without clear genetic categories, characteristics not being clearly determined by single genes, and the immense genetic differences that exist within populations, which may outnumber the differences between them.  But beyond all of these arguments, Bloch insists, lies the fact that there is no legitimate reason to treat people differently just because genetic differences exist. Thus, recognizing innate psychological differences does not justify discrimination, and social scientists should not shy away from these facts out of a fear of racism or sexism. Anthropologists’ beliefs that humans are different from all other animals because of our complex capacity for history, communication of knowledge and culture should also not be used to avoid considering innate knowledge, something all animals possess. Humans are unique, but we are not absolutely different from all other living species.

This point that anthropologists should not forget that humans are animals returns us to Bloch’s fight against the nature-culture dichotomy. When studying people, innate predispositions (babies’ understanding of basic physics and that people have their own minds, for example) are inseparable from our culturally and historically shaped aspects. The nature versus culture reasoning is inadequate: it is fundamentally static, while people are complex and dynamic. Furthermore, the natural and social scientists are closer than they believe, since scientists and “natives” live in the same world and are the same species, making an internal “native” point of view necessarily external (or all human internal), and the external scientist’s view necessarily dependent on internal factors of history of the person they study. Natural and social scientists are looking at different levels of the self and arguing about who does it better because they think they are looking at the same thing. The human animal must be looked at as a complete being with all characteristics taken into account. So, Bloch’s idea of “the blob” comes into play to explain these levels, which are really points in a continuum.

Bloch’s “blob” consists first of the core, with general characteristics involving “a sense of ownership and location of one’s body” and a sense that one is controlling one’s actions. The next layer of the blob is the minimal self, involving a sense of one’s continuity in time, necessary for long-term memory and recognizing oneself, as well as the ability to “time travel” (Bloch discusses this concept at length, and it refers to remembering information from the past to inform present behavior or planning future behavior, which necessitates having an imagination that allows one to “be” in the past or future). The third level is the narrative self, linked with autobiographical memory, and the ability to tell stories about oneself, the implications of which for consciousness and language remain debatable. Those who create meta-representations, or who tell others about their inner states, have an additional blob element, which Bloch hesitates to call another level since it is not fundamental. The differences between those who create many meta-representations or not are akin to the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures anthropologists study. But all blobs are fundamentally the same, and are also organically united with each other and constantly transforming by connecting with each other both physically (birth and sex) and mentally (social exchange).

Finally, Bloch illustrates his points about how social and natural scientists think they are looking at the same thing when in fact they are not to the topic of memory, which seems straightforward but can mean anything from the mental processes that cognitive scientists study to anthropological ideas of collective memory or public commemorations. He focuses on the neurological theory of connectionism, which suggests that knowledge is organized in webs of interconnected networks. Bloch concludes the book by discussing how, as illustrated by topics like memory, anthropologists often generate conclusions without thoroughly examining the complexity of issues. Ethnography only provides surface glimpses of second-order meta-representations like language, and not scientific analyses of thought processes. Yet anthropological contributions can be important if done in cooperation with other scientific disciplines, in the attempt to look at the total of human physiological, psychological, and historical processes. Thus, Bloch believes that anthropology as a discipline should return in part to its scientific roots.

While Bloch’s observations are undeniably important and deserve consideration, the book is not without fault. Bloch reiterates his thoughts at the beginning of every chapter, which, while helpful if one was reading each specific chapter separately, makes for very repetitive reading. The vocabulary used is sometimes esoteric and cumbersome to the point of making the book a difficult read, yet the subject’s importance indicates it should be accessible to as large an audience as possible. This density also makes the leap when Bloch uses the colloquial term “blob” to explain the self somewhat startling, although welcome.

Bloch’s insistence that anthropologists and cognitive scientists move forward by understanding each other is admirable. However, his challenge to ethnography to look more broadly and examine the particular situation in terms of general questions about humankind could be seen as devaluing ethnography to the point of it being useless if one does not make big-picture, general, or evolutionary statements. Yet Bloch insists that the anthropologist is not equipped to make such claims and should really be collaborating with natural scientists to do so. Bloch’s determination to understand all facets of the human blob and his emphasis on interdisciplinary work is admirable. Hopefully his seemingly radical ideas can become accepted by mainstream natural and social scientists and lead to a greater understanding of cognition within culture.

Anthro X: An anti-seminar in culture and cognition

As mentioned in my previous post, this term I’m running a special course on the topic of culture and cognition, for six of the students in my Culture, Language and Cognition course from last term, all of whom were highly successful and, because I’m advising them in one way or another, are highly motivated to do some more work in this field.    I’m running this as a joint directed study – it looks like a seminar, and acts like a seminar, but keeping it ‘directed’ allows me to schedule it and manage enrollment more effectively.   I’m calling it ‘Anthro X’ as a conscious homage to the late physicist Richard Feynman, and his ‘Physics X’ informal seminars at Caltech. 

Last term’s course was skewed a little towards ‘cognitive anthropology’ construed narrowly, within the American tradition outlined by Roy D’Andrade in his The development of cognitive anthropology (1995).  This sort of work is obviously important, but hardly scratches the surface of the broader subject of ‘culture and cognition’ (across anthropological subfields and related disciplines).  It’s that broader field where I position my own work on number and numeracy, and thus, where I decided to go in this new course.  I chose recent book-length works, all from the past ten years, and a heavy skew towards the past two years. Partly that’s because these particular students already have a broad reading background in the older material, so are more than ready for contemporary stuff.  Partly it’s because they’ll be writing book reviews, which they’ll be posting here in the weeks to come.  Partly it’s because I haven’t read half this stuff myself, and assigning it to students provides me a good incentive to do so. 

Anyway, here’s the planned reading list – comments and questions are welcome!

Bloch, Maurice. 2012. Anthropology and the cognitive challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cerulo, Karen A. 2006. Never saw it coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst. University of Chicago Press.

Cohen, Emma. 2007. The mind possessed: the cognition of spirit possession in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: a brief history. New York: Routledge.

Kockelman, Paul. 2010. Language, culture, and mind: natural constructions and social kinds. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lende, Daniel H., and Downey, Greg, eds. 2012. The encultured brain: an introduction to neuroanthropology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Lloyd, G. E. R. 2007. Cognitive variations: reflections on the unity and diversity of the human mind. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How things shape the mind: a theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Saxe, Geoffrey. 2012. Cultural development of mathematical ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suchman, Lucille Alice. 2007. Human-machine reconfigurations: plans and situated actions (2nd edition). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A natural history of human thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wengrow, David. 2013. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2013. Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wynn, Thomas, and Frederick Coolidge. 2012. How to think like a Neandertal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Another summer gone

All lies.  The promises I made to myself that I’d post here even while I was doing my fieldwork: all the products of a self-deluded mind.  Is this what happens when you get tenure?  Who knew?

In any event, yes, I’m still alive, and yes, as alluded above, I now have tenure and can spend the next 30 years ranting about ‘kids these days’ or whatever I choose, but no, I haven’t been around much online – although I have been spending some time on Twitter @schrisomalis.  But enough wallowing.  No time for wallowing.

Once again I’ll be teaching my undergraduate Language and Culture class, which starts tomorrow – except where I had 36 students last year, this year I have 61 (!). Who knows how it happened, although I’m not really complaining.    I am running the Lexiculture project again, no matter how ill-advised that may be with a class of that size.  With luck, I’ll end up with a dozen or more papers submitted to the online repository, volume 2.  I’ve been collecting new words for the project all year, and now have about 70 or so, which of course, I thought would be plenty, but turns out to be barely enough.  But enough, nonetheless.  I’ll post the full list I’m making available to the students. 

I’m also trying something really new this year.  Last winter, my Culture, Language, and Cognition course was successful but big for a senior/grad course – I had over 20 enrolled, not all of whom had an enormous interest in the topic.  But I have several grad students working on projects with such a bent, or prepping for qualifying exams, or otherwise interested, and they didn’t really get as much of a chance to engage with the ideas as they would have in a seminar.  So this term I’m running a sort of weird hybrid directed study / seminar for a half-dozen of the folks from that class, a book-a-week thing focused on contemporary books in the field (broadly construed).  The students will be posting reviews of these books in this very location – stay tuned for more on that!

In the spirit of general exhaustion, I’ll be doing three or four conferences this year, publishing some results off my long-term ethnographic project at the Math Corps (hard to believe it’s been six years, really), finishing off a couple of articles that have been roaming the mighty savanna of my desk for far too long, and getting to work on the next book(!).  After all, there’s always the next promotion!   Apparently I am too stupid to realize that I don’t have to exhaust myself with work.



Jim Lambek, 1922-2014

I learned the sad news today that the mathematician Joachim Lambek (Jim to all of us who knew him) passed away yesterday at the age of 91.    Jim was one of my mentors and an external committee member for my Ph.D.     Jim will be known to mathematicians (of whom I suppose relatively few if any will read this blog) for his many articles in formal subjects far beyond my knowledge or ability, but also as a warm and generous scholar.

I came to him in a rather roundabout way; in discussions with my advisor, Bruce Trigger, he suggested to me that if I really wanted to do this numbers thing, then I should have a mathematician on my committee just to make sure I wasn’t mucking things up too badly.  As it turned out, I was very fortunate that Jim was at McGill, as he was a major pioneering figure in applying mathematical methods to linguistics (1958, 1979), had written several pieces on the analysis of kinship systems using techniques pioneered by, for instance, Floyd Lounsbury, had also published anthropological material with his son Michael (who I later met at the University of Toronto) (Lambek and Lambek 1981), and was also the co-author of a superior undergraduate text on the history of ancient mathematics, The heritage of Thales (Anglin and Lambek 1995).  At our first meeting I must have seemed such the infant, but he graciously passed me an offprint of his recent paper ‘A rewrite system of the Western Pacific’ (Bhargava and Lambek 1995) and suggested that we could have some future discussions, which we did.  His impact on Numerical Notation and on my work as a cognitively-oriented linguistic anthropologist is subtle but great.    I am hardly the sort of person who can summarize his much broader impact on his home discipline, except to say that he will be missed.

Anglin, WS, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. The Heritage of Thales. Springer.
Bhargava, Mira, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. “A rewrite system of the Western Pacific: Lounsbury’s analysis of Trobriand kinship terminology.” Theoretical linguistics 21 (2-3): 240-253.
Lambek, Joachim. 1958. “The mathematics of sentence structure.” American mathematical monthly:154-170.
Lambek, Joachim. 1979. “A mathematician looks at Latin conjugation.” Theoretical Linguistics 6 (1-3):221-234.
Lambek, Joachim, and Michael Lambek. 1981. “The kinship terminology of Malagasy speakers in Mayotte.” Anthropological linguistics:154-182.

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 6 (2014)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2014 edition of my course, Language and Societies, and presented at the course blog of the same name. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Alex B. Hill: A critical discourse on Detroit’s ‘Food Desert’ metaphor

Maya Stovall: How Ballet Terminology is Disputed and Employed as the Language of Dance

Roba Hrisseh: Social Stigmas Attached to Dialectal Differences: Lebanese and Yemeni Dialects in Dearborn City, Michigan

Suzanne Walsh: The Car Becomes Me

Kyrene Collins: Color Terminology in English and French

Srinawati: Sundanese Speech Levels

Eric Boulis: Klingon as Reviewed by the Fans

Taylor Monday: Sustainability: Defining Something that Deals with Everything

Zeina Lubus: English and French code-switching – an index to Christianity and Islam in modern Lebanon

Kaitlyn Ahlers: “Bold, Brash” Brews: Sensory Description among Craft Beer Consumers

Rachel Willhite: Gender Perspectives and Prediction in Online Communication

C. Lorin Brace VI: Together Forever: Gendered Language Use in Gravestone Epitaphs

Michael Elster: Transmitting “Realness”: Linguistic and Economic Tension in Drag Queen Speech

Andrew Bray: Wheel, Snipe, Celly: Understanding the Creation, Expansion, and Evolution of the Ice Hockey Anti-Language

Amber Aschwanden: Roman obelisks and the convergence of historical and contemporary linguistic landscapes – A pilot study

Madelyn Gutkoski: Discourse of Fitness and Sport in the CrossFit Community of Practice

Stanislava Chavez: Language and Warfare: Prehispanic Pukaras and Scholars’ Battle Over Andean Militarism

Daniel Mora: Profanity in social settings

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.

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

(Download PDF version)

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 (  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 (  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” (  “Plain vanilla” used on its own, refers to a swap or derivative financial instrument that is issued with standard features ( 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” (  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.”

References Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <>.

Cruikshank, Margaret. The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. N.p.: Pyschological Press, 1992. 1-27. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <’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. <;.

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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. <;.

Timeline: Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

“Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans.” LIFE 19 Oct. 1942: 35 -36. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <;.

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