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I came across the phrase, someone who wears “a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope” in Vanity Fair’s December 1st issue, which came under the headline,”Look at what we love. It’s on fire: Stephen Colbert on Trump trauma, leadership loss.” The lead copy follows:

The late night host is ready for a little less excitement. “If Joe Biden is a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope, that would be great.”

I don’t understand what on the earth “someone who is a pair of khaki inside a manila envelope” mean.

No dictionary at hand, nor Google search gives a definition of “pair of khaki pants in manila envelope.” I know it’s a figurative turn of phrase, and my naive guess is it implies someone who behaves just like an average people, though he or she is in upper social hierarchy. But, I’m not sure. Is this a common, well-received phrase? I appreciate if somebody teaches me.

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    It's not a widely used idiom. I suspect the intended meaning is "a very boring person".
    – The Photon
    Dec 2 '20 at 3:33
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    I've never heard this, but I imagine it's the boring variant of "iron fist in a velvet glove".
    – pjc50
    Dec 2 '20 at 12:18
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    @pjc50: Not really; the point of that phrase is the contrast: an apparently soft exterior is actually hiding a hard heavy-hitting interior. Here an apparently boring exterior is hiding an equally boring interior. Dec 2 '20 at 19:49
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    The title of the question doesn't match the question. Are we asking about someone with "a pair of pants inside a manila envelope", someone who wears “a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope”, or someone who is "a pair of pants inside a manila envelope"? They're three quite different statements. Dec 3 '20 at 18:06
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    While quite a few answers to this question have been posted within a relatively short time, they mostly focus on the ordinariness of khaki pants and manila envelopes. However, the part of the metaphor that most needs explaining is neither khaki pants nor manila envelope, but inside. What is putting pants inside an envelope supposed to be a metaphor for?
    – jsw29
    Dec 3 '20 at 23:06
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I think other answers have missed a couple of things

someone who wears “a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope”

Firstly notice that no-one wears pants inside an envelope - that would be impossible. The statement says that Biden is pants inside an envelope.

Secondly, the metaphor says that Biden (a) looks boring from the outside and (b) his personality (his inside) is also boring.


Manila envelope

Test image description here

Khaki pants

Test age description here


In the light of comments I thought I would take the investigation a step further

Perhaps the phrase is more than just a metaphor. I notice that the colours of the Biden/Harris campaign seem to include khaki. (I'm British so I didn't experience this first-hand)

Here's some campaign merchandise

enter image description here

... and here's a pure guess. Could Biden promotional material have arrived in a manila envelope containing a picture of Joe wearing khaki? I don't know. He certainly does wear khaki pants and even suits sometimes.

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    The sentence before it gives a big hint too: "the late night host is ready for a little less excitement." Meaning the current president causes a lot of "excitement" and he expects Biden will cause less excitement, aka is boring in comparison.
    – Kat
    Dec 2 '20 at 21:51
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    @Kat - I'd go further than that. I'd say that the preceding sentence is almost crucial for understanding the metaphor. When I saw the phrase out of context in the question title, I could kind of guess what it may have meant after a bit of thought. But when I opened the question and read it in context, its meaning was immediately obvious.
    – BenM
    Dec 2 '20 at 22:56
  • I don't think this figure of speech is describing Biden's looks and personality specifically, but rather than the phrase is a variation on "a riddle wrapped up in an enigma", i.e. a more poetic way of saying "very boring", without implying specifically what is the boring part.
    – Flater
    Dec 3 '20 at 17:43
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    The khaki pants you've pictured border on fancy.
    – LShaver
    Dec 3 '20 at 22:22
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    @LShaver, I think those are more of a "blue collar" khaki pants. They have reinforced knees and ankle pockets that can only be accessed when kneeling or bending over. And the darker cuff would be useful to hide stains from walking through mud and other crud. These aren't the khakis an office worker would use. But on first glance, they sure do look fancy. And definitely fancy as opposed to lack of decoration of most khakis. Dec 4 '20 at 20:47
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I'm pretty sure this isn't a "a common, well-received phrase", rather it is a one-off mixed metaphor. I believe it is combining two contexts where a brownish color implies "plain or neutral, not gaudy". Khaki pants or chinos would be a conservative, not-flashy fashion choice in some circles, and a Manila envelope is a plain brown envelope rather than fancy stationery.

I don't believe there is any connotation of "in upper social hierarchy".

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    I agree; no connotation of "upper social hierarchy." And thanks for addressing one of the OP's questions.
    – rajah9
    Dec 2 '20 at 12:59
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    Does khaki not have the military connotations in US English that it does in UK English? Bureaucrat on the outside, soldier on the inside? Dec 2 '20 at 14:00
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    @PeteKirkham, no, not in the US. Here, khakis are just a common style pants often worn by people who need to present a neat, but not too fancy, appearance. Usually for work. The connotation is that it is very bland.
    – Seth R
    Dec 2 '20 at 15:00
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    @AzorAhai-him-: No. It's usually manila. Dec 2 '20 at 19:51
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    @PeteKirkham: to translate to British English, I’d suggest reading “beige chinos” for khakis.
    – PLL
    Dec 2 '20 at 20:08
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Khaki pants are a rather plain, boring type of pants, and a manila envelope is a rather plain, boring envelope. So, I think "a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope" is a humorous way of saying "very plain and very boring."

So, Colbert is saying that if Joe Biden turns out to be a very plain and very boring president, he would like that a lot. This would be by contrast with Donald Trump, whose presidency has been anything but plain and boring.

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This is an appeal to the most bland of possibilities. Khaki pants are bland and of an unnoticeable color. In fact Khaki pants were created as part of a British uniform in India. There the sand would blow up and spoil the clean white linens of the marching troops, bad show. Coloring pants with earth tones solves the problem by looking like the dirt. The manila is the same in the stationery world. He is allowing that the candidate may be the least appealing, the least noticeable. With this he would prefer him over the alternative.

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  • Bland is the perfect word. That whole phrase equates to "bland".
    – mjjf
    Dec 2 '20 at 23:19
  • As opposed to Sanders who would not be described well by "bland". Dec 3 '20 at 6:49
  • @Chriss C; Your edits are so subtle I cannot imagine what you did. It must have been a whopper on my part.
    – Elliot
    Dec 3 '20 at 23:19
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    @Elliot - the world is never stationary...
    – Tim
    Dec 4 '20 at 14:07
  • @Tim; I had wondered where my stationery store had gone.
    – Elliot
    Dec 5 '20 at 0:43
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Here's the article referenced in question. The question slightly misquotes the byline

The late-night host is ready for a little less excitement: “If Joe Biden is a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope, that would be great.”

That's some key context for the quote. Colbert is ready for a little less excitement. When we look at it in that context, it's clear that he's making a metaphor for Joe Biden. There is nothing exciting about manila envelopes or khaki pants, and by adding the two together, he's engaged in hyperbole. Why is he hoping Joe Biden (then merely a candidate for US President) wins? The third sentence makes that clear

For four long years, Colbert has been making comedy out of the tragedy of Donald Trump. It defined his show, it defined his monologues, it defined his jokes—it defined him. And now, in the excruciating hours of uncertainty, as votes are being counted in Pennsylvania on a Friday afternoon and the nation grinds closer to resolution, the end seems finally, fitfully, at hand.

Colbert has been a public critic of Donald Trump (video contains some strong language) and he's hoping that Biden is someone he won't even have to talk about on his TV show. In other words, he hopes Biden is boring.

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Other answers have done a good job explaining the specific meaning of this phrase, but I think it's worth unpacking how it was constructed.

Metaphors in English generally take "like" or "as," which is more clear, and more common, but not as strong a construction (we call these "similes"). But it's possible to use an unmodified "is" when you want to be more forceful.

The use of two different metaphors piled on top of each other is done to further intensify the meaning for comedic effect. "Khaki pants" and "plain manila envelope" are both relatively common metaphors for bland, unshowy functionality. By combining them together, you reach the concept of something that's almost excessively normal and moderate, which is simultaneously a humorous idea, and a good description of how Biden was positioning himself in opposition to Trump's flashy extremism.

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  • Biden isn’t as boring as manila and khaki (analogy); he is manila and khaki (metaphor).
    – StephenS
    Dec 5 '20 at 1:11
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Adding to the fine answers already given...

“If Joe Biden is a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope, that would be great.”

A plain color, khaki, resides inside a plain envelope.

Colbert may be drawing on several items here.

  1. Biden is portrayed as boring, bland, and humble, wrapped in a plain physical appearance.
  2. Colbert is happy with boring, bland, humble, and plain after the fireworks of the previous administration. (In his words, that would be great.)

And a couple of things absent.

  1. The statement is not so much about Biden being average, even though beige could connote this. (But I admit that there is a humble aspect to beige that may be in play.)
  2. I do not think there is an implication about Biden being upper class.

There is a (Southern US) idiom of a yellow dog Democrat. These voters would allegedly "vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican."(Source: Wikipedia)

Colbert's intro works because he believes American voters have voted for a yellow dog (or a a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope) rather than the sitting Republican. But the yellow dog analogy breaks down a bit; rather than choosing out of dogmatic loyalty, the voters are choosing away from the incumbent. This may be why the khaki pants works.

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    The last part is off, I think. Voting for a dog represents something that's a bad choice. Khaki represents something that's a safe choice, something that will be acceptable for a wide range of situations. Khaki isn't going to get you a fashion award, but it also won't cause any problems. Dec 2 '20 at 18:44
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This is a figure of speech. It's a variation on a better known quote:

It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

To convey that [it] is very complicated, it is described as having multiple layers of puzzles and complexities.

Simply put, to express that something is very much [A], you can describe it as "[A1] wrapped in [A2] wrapped in [A3]", where A1/A2/A3 are all types of A.

You can of course use other verbs than "wrapped", as long as you convey that these things are intertwined.

If Joe Biden is a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope, that would be great.

Khaki pants are often derided as being a very dull and boring item of clothing. Manilla envelopes are a dull and bland kind of envelope. Their being dull/boring/bland is the common trait that is being pointed out here.

"a pair of khaki pants inside a manila envelope" therefore describes something that is very dull or boring.

So what Stephen is trying to convey is:

The late night host is ready for a little less excitement. “If Joe Biden is very dull, bland and boring, that would be great.”

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