What Color is Khaki, Anyway?

This post is part of a collection on Obscurities.

For various reasons I've been spending a lot of time looking at Japanese Instagram posts recently. While doing so I noticed something unexpected: khaki is a shade of green.

Some results from the #カーキコーデ ("khaki outfit") tag.

Khaki comes from Hindustani, where it meant "earth-colored", and originally referred to a sandy beige. This is still the basic meaning in English, though sometimes "khaki pants" refers to chino pants regardless of color. In general though, Amazon US shows no confusion about the meaning of the word.

A search for "khaki" on Amazon US turns up just beige pants.

Why did khaki come to mean a green color in Japanese? Well, the word came into English specifically in reference to military uniforms, and continues to be associated with them. At some point it seems that the association with the original brownish color was overshadowed by the association with military clothing, and khaki somehow came to refer to olive drab similar to the US "army green" color. When and how this happened is unclear.

That said, the association with green in Japan also isn't totally consistent - Amazon JP seems confused about whether khaki is basically a green or brown color, though some of this confusion comes from direct translation of terms used by overseas brands.

A search for "カーキ" on Amazon JP turns up a mix of colors and clothing items.

In a particularly amusing case, there's a question about Dickies pants that runs into the issue:

Q: "It says these are khaki but they look beige, which is it??" A: "I think there's some variation in the dye process but mine are more beige than khaki, but they're kind of a dark beige."

Personally I think I'll just have to avoid using the word entirely in Japanese. And the next time someone tells you they bought khaki pants, try asking them what color they are. Ψ