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What color is khaki?

I was on the flight from San Jose to New York yesterday. The guy next to me, who had been tapping away furiously at a laptop all through boarding and takeoff, suddenly turned to me and said:

“Did you know that ‘khaki’ is a Hindi word which means ‘dusty green’? It’s a British colonial invention.”

The conversation went downhill from there.

Now I’m sure that you have a lot of questions, so let me just get down to the facts:

I was riding in Economy Comfort on Air India’s Boeing 777-300ER series aircraft. The flight was flying overnight from San Jose to New York JFK with a scheduled departure time of 00:50 PST on Jan 2nd. The plane was delivered to Air India in Aug, 2004 by Boeing as their 3rd commercial aircraft ordered that year.

The plane flew into San Jose airport at around 20:30 PST after a flight from Frankfurt via Mumbai. All passengers disembarked and were subjected to immigration processing at the US Pre-clearance facility. After this, a fresh set of passengers boarded the plane to fly to New York, and those coming from Frankfurt now switched over to the Air India flight from JFK.

The guy next to me was an Indian-American professional in his late thirties who had been born and raised in the US. He was on his way home after celebrating New Years with friends and family in San Jose. He was not familiar with the English language, and spoke only a few words of it. I don’t think he had brought his own laptop on board: he was using one which belonged to an Indian relative who was studying in the US and had travelled with him from India to California for winter break.

The conversation was in Hindi. He seemed to be fluent, and I have a very small working knowledge of the language. Since I didn’t want to seem too rude by immediately disengaging from a conversation, I responded sporadically at first but grew more involved as our talk went on. The idea for the article came much later when we had both dozed off.

The following is a verbatim transcript of the conversation, with some tidying up for readability. I have also added some paragraph breaks to break it into more readable parts.

What color is khaki?

I’d never heard that before, but I’ve read about how everyone just assumed that this shade of tan came from India because it’s the color of the uniforms worn by British Indian soldiers. And since India is known as “the country of a thousand colors”, they just dubbed it ‘khaki’ – after an Urdu word for silt, which means ‘dusty green’.

“Khaki?” I asked, thinking that he had made a mistake.

No, he said, it means ‘dusty green’ in Hindi too. He’d read about it on the internet somewhere while researching a project for his Master’s degree.

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