No. 76: Dick Cheney, Cardinal Richelieu and the 51st shade of gray

The Beige Book is out this week, offering members of the Federal Reserve anecdotal economic data and sentiment from branch directors, businessfolk, economists and others. The report is produced eight times annually, just before the meetings at which interest rates are adjusted. Or not.

The book’s been around since 1970, originally with a red cover, but was not released publicly until 1985, when a reporter from The Wall Street Journal bothered to ask for a copy. The ones given to the media, by the way, have white covers, but the Fed governors still get theirs beige.

Speaking of beige, the hot new color in home decorating is called “greige,” or beige leaning towards gray. Interestingly, it’s where beige came from in the first place.

Beige is a fairly recent color word – about 1879 – originally used by the French for the hue of undyed wool. Before that it was simply described as gray – gris or grise, gender depending – from which we have the term éminence grise, an advisor who wields power behind the scenes.

The origin was François Leclerc, a friar and the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu, first minister of Louis XIII. Leclerc wasn’t nearly a cardinal and did not rate the title L’éminence, which should have been reserved for his boss. But sucking up was alive and well even in the 1620s, and so the wool-robed monk, in deference to the power he represented, became known as the Gray Cardinal.

(Richelieu was called Éminence Rouge, from the ruby color of his cardinal’s vestments. As The Scarlet Pimpernel attests, the French like their redundancies.)

While political relationships occasionally produce a modern éminence grise – think Dick Cheney or Ted Sorensen – the term is more apt to be used today for a beloved mentor or, disingenuously, for a long-serving sage the millennials in the office pretend to respect.

To sum up: The Beige Book, formerly red, handed out in white, is vaguely related to the original Éminence Gray, who worked for the Cardinal Rouge, all of which gives us a popular new color for accent walls, one of which I suspect Dick Cheney has in his home.

And who knows? He may still be advising on interest rates.

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Compiled by John Kominicki. Thanks for reading.