Today, the word vanilla conjures images of blandness: plain vanilla ice cream, or maybe an especially uninteresting acquaintance. The origin of vanilla, though, is quite the opposite. The flavor first came from the pods of Vanilla planifolia, an orchid native to the mountain forests of Mexico. Its flower blooms a single day out of the year. The indigenous Totonacs call vanilla caxixanth, meaning “hidden flower.”
So how did this elusive orchid become synonymous with boring? The answer lies in mass production—and to understand mass production, we have to first travel back to the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica.
Following their conquest of the Azetcs, the Spanish exported vanilla back to Europe, where it became a popular additive in the pastries of the elite. Europeans liked the flavor and wanted more of it. But there was one problem: Absent its native pollinators, the vanilla orchid failed to reproduce or bear fruit. For several centuries, vanilla was grown outside of Mexico largely in the gardens and greenhouses of the wealthy, more for decoration than anything else.
That changed in 1841, on a tiny French colony off the coast of Madagascar, where an enslaved child named Edmond Albius took a method for hand-pollinating watermelons and adapted it to the vanilla plant. His discovery made commercial production of vanilla possible; in fact, Albius’s hand-pollination technique is still used today. The explosion of vanilla production gave more people access to the flavor, and demand skyrocketed.
Even with Albius’s pollination technique, vanilla is still difficult to produce. Hand pollination is labor-intensive, the orchid flowers for a short window of time, and the pods require extensive processing before they can be used in food. (Today, vanilla remains one of the most expensive spices in the world.)
Starting in 1874, scientists successfully developed synthetic vanilla from other sources, such as wood pulp. Synthetic products opened up new possibilities for mass production and gave more people than ever access to vanilla. A majority of the vanilla flavor we eat today is synthetic, and much of that synthetic flavor is in fact derived from petrochemicals. With the advent of synthetic flavoring and the sudden ubiquity of “vanilla” products, the connotation of the word changed.
There are two linguistic terms that apply to vanilla’s transformation: pejoration, meaning a word that becomes negative, and bleaching, in which a word loses power over time. “There’s something kind of ironic that the word that comes to mean ‘bleached of flavor’ has gone through a process that linguists call bleaching,” Chris C. Palmer, a historical linguist at Kennesaw State University, tells Mental Floss. “When you call something vanilla, you’re really not giving any specific qualities, right? But the flavor does have a very specific flavor. It’s a very rare flavor … there’s some movement that’s happened there where vanilla has either pejorated—it’s gotten more negative—or it’s kind of been bleached of meaning.”
The term plain vanilla first appears in recipes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1890, for example, a newspaper in New York wrote that candied fruits can “convert plain vanilla [ice cream] into Neapolitan.” As it became common in food, vanilla also became synonymous with other plain things. The once rare and precious was now uninspired and commonplace.