I was reading a novel the other day in which mention was made of ‘a blue manila folder’. This brought me up short, because surely manila is (a) an envelope and (b) the substance for which the adjective ‘buff-coloured’ was invented? Investigation was clearly required…
Colour distinctions are notoriously difficult to write about: think of early botanical descriptions, especially those in translation, not to mention the scholarly arguments about ancient Greek colour perception: the ‘wine-dark sea’, and all that. (The RHS now has its own colour charts giving a range not unlike (but considerably smaller than) Pantone’s.) You would think that colour printing and digital photography would have made it all much easier, but of course the issues of colour calibration remain a problem: I get very frustrated at the way my phone camera bleaches/dulls really bright colours (though this may be because I don’t understand how to use it to best effect).
It turns out that ‘buff-coloured’ did not originally refer to paper but to undyed leather – the material used as protective clothing for soldiers, first worn under metal armour (like the quilted gambeson), and then on its own, as clanking around the battlefield became less common.
Think of English Civil War soldiers, or chamoix leather.
The etymology is fairly weird: Latin ‘bufalus’, French ‘buffle’, English ‘buff’ (‘buffe leather’ is referred to in the 1570s). But what was a bufalus/buffle at this stage? Not, presumably, an American bison? Oxhide or cowhide seem to have been the most common materials, with elk-hide used in Scandinavia.
The phrase ‘in the buff’, arising from the association ‘buff/skin’, dates to the seventeenth century. The verb ‘to buff’, meaning ‘polish’, refers to the use of soft leather (e.g. chamoix) to polish metal or glass. The first use of ‘buff’ to describe a colour rather than a material comes from 1686: a uniform is to be ‘a Red Coat with a Buff-colour’d lining’. ‘The Buffs’ are the Royal East Kent Regiment (formerly the 3rd Regiment of Foot), who obtained their name (from their buff-coloured facings and waistcoats) in 1744: two foot regiments being commanded by officers named Howard, one was named the ‘Green Howards’, and the other the ‘Buff Howards’, later shortened. (I won’t go into the origin and subsequent use of the phrase ‘Steady, the Buffs!’, or we’ll be here for ever.)
So, that’s the colour. Technically, it is a quaternary colour: think (pigment) primary colours and mix them down through four combinations. The tertiary colours here are citron and russet. Citron comes from the secondary green with the primary yellow, and russet from the secondaries green and orange; green from primaries yellow and blue, and orange from primaries red and yellow.
As to the paper (associated in my distant youth with letters with no stamp but the mystic black OHMS print, and now (mostly) with communications from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, always confusing and never in my favour), it did in fact originally come from Manila (or at any rate the Philippines). Manila hemp is made from the fibres of the abacá tree, Musa textilis, the Philippine banana (though its fruit doesn’t seem to be eaten?).
The fibre is one of the strongest in nature: it resists salt water, and so was formerly used primarily for ships’ ropes and fishing nets.
Made into paper, as well as the ubiquitous and relatively coarse manila envelope, it is used for teabags, decorative papers which make a virtue of its visible fibres, and banknotes, because of its strength.
It is also used to make hats, bags, matting, furniture, sandals, and textiles including ribbon, canvas and some clothing fabrics.
Today, it is grown in Costa Rica and Ecuador as well as the Philippines, but the latter still produces 80% of the world’s crop, and in the nineteenth century it was one of the three staples of the Filipino economy, along with tobacco and sugar.
Manila envelopes are not dyed, but folders made from manila card are: they used not to be, but the modern office likes things to be colour-coded and/or jolly. I’m still waiting, by the way, for the paperless and manila-less office. (It hadn’t occurred to me (after more than thirty years of ritually passing them on) that ‘internal office’ reusable envelopes are also manila: but I do remember the great moral dilemma of what to do with one which had lost either its little round tag or the string which you twisted round it: was it fit for the recycling bin if you couldn’t seal it?) So it looks as though referring to a blue manila folder is, in our times, acceptable usage. Still doesn’t sound right, though.