What is the origin of "off-color", as in "an off-color joke"? I can't think of an obvious explanation, and fishing the internet produced conflicting explanations (gems, choleric moods...).

1 Answer 1


The earliest use, according to the OED, seems to have been in 1860 in the diamond industry, where it described a diamond that was ‘neither pure white nor any definite colour, and so of inferior value.’

Thirteen years later it was used to mean ‘Not of a colour considered natural, proper, or acceptable; paler or darker than expected or usual.’ Three years after that was in extended use to mean ‘Not in good health, slightly unwell; (also) not up to the mark, defective, deficient, out of order.’

Around the same time it was also in use to describe something that was ‘Of questionable taste, disreputable; improper, vulgar; specifically (of language, jokes, etc.) slightly indecent or obscene.’

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.