The following conversation occurred at work the other day:
MD executive [jokingly, to HR executive, holding up document]: This is like that book 50 Shades of Grey!
Me [to MD executive’s assistant]: Did he just say what I think he said?! To an HR person?!
MD executive’s assistant: Yeahhhhh…he doesn’t know what that book’s about.
Me [later, after some thought]: Did he mean that it was confusing and hard to understand, like it wasn’t black and white, but shades of grey?
MD executive’s assistant: Yup, and, while that’s technically correct…
Me: Jeez, I really hope that document wasn’t like grade Z erotica.
I expect there was some subtlety lost in translation too, as the MD executive’s primary language is not English.
And here, my dear readers, we have a great illustration of the difference between connotation and denotation. If I say in an exasperated voice, “Ugh, this stinkin’ document is 50 shades of grey!” it is eminently plausible that I’m annoyed at its endless sfumato murkiness, and I could certainly use the words to denote that — that is, to indicate it definitionally. However, such a remark now currently carries associations with certain pieces of grade Z erotica, so, even if I mean something frustratingly ambiguous, no one will interpret my remark that way.
Speaking of grey, apparently une éminence grise does NOT mean an old, respected, redoubtable person, but a power behind the throne. I always thought it referred to an old eminent person, with the grey alluding to the person’s grey hair, but apparently it refers to Francois Leclerc du Tremblay, the advisor of Cardinal Richelieu. Leclerc was technically not due the title of Eminence, as he wasn’t a cardinal, but people called him the Grey Eminence in respect to his power. The grise denotes not the color grey, but Leclerc’s beige friar robes. I guess beige was called grise back then. Makes me wonder what the French for beige was.