There are a lot of literary tics out there that readers have noticed and they’re sick of them, but a very specific descriptor has become enemy number one online after it was pointed out by Twitter user @ItsZaeOk. They were responding to a tweet from @videojame_, who asked, “writers love saying things like ‘he had a toothy grin’ what is a toothy grin. just making shit up. ‘he walked feetily into the kitchen’ that’s how you sound.”
Zae’s answer was about a way of describing skin tones, writing, “‘olive-toned skin’ used to piss me off.”
The replies were very revealing. People had extremely disparate ideas about what “olive tone” is supposed to mean. For me, it was always a way to describe people with darker skin, usually from the Mediterranean or Italy or other beautiful sun-kissed places. But to Zae and a bunch of other people, it was a coded way to describe a Black person that the writer was using to avoid saying so directly (for whatever reason):
There were some people very insistently trying to explain the history of the term, with some insisting that the olive part is actually an “undertone,” meaning that it isn’t your skin color per se, but the underlying tone of it that makes some people look rosier, or more golden or whatever. Olives are green, but since it’s an undertone it doesn’t mean the person is literally green.
There was also a bunch of argument over the phrase “tall, dark, and handsome” with some saying that it meant a white person with dark hair, others saying it was just another version of the original issue discussed in Zae’s tweet.
Ultimately, language changes all the time, especially with discussion. And saying olive skin might be something to retire? But mainly because it gets used so much in bad novels.