Merriam Webster explains vanilla (when used as an adjective) as:

lacking distinction : plain, ordinary, conventional

It's not obvious why vanilla has such a meaning, and why plain is listed as its synonym. As you can find in the grocery store, vanilla yogurt and plain yogurt are two different products:

vanilla plain

So I'm wondering what's the exact difference between these two words and how to use vanilla correctly so that the salesperson doesn't hand you the wrong yogurt.

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    In addition to the answers, you can see that there is a vanilla flower on the left one (google.fr/search?q=vanilla+flower). The barn on the right side does not make much sense in that context, though (they should have left the spot empty if this is the place they put the flavour picture in) – WoJ Aug 16 at 8:29
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    @WoJ - Because yogurt is derived from milk, I think the barn is supposed to be reminiscent of cows. – J.R. Aug 16 at 8:51
  • @J.R.: thanks, this is something I considered as well - but the yoghurt on the left is derived from milk as well :) Anyway, the second part of my comment was just a thought I had when typing the first one. – WoJ Aug 16 at 10:56
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    @WoJ - Well, the strawberry yogurt has a strawberry, the cherry yogurt gets a cherry, and the coffee yogurt shows some coffee beans. I guess the plain yogurt had to have something, and I can understand how the company wouldn't want to put a barn on every label. – J.R. Aug 16 at 11:24
  • Oh, poor, poor underrated vanilla. Good real vanilla is a delicious flavor. – mattdm Aug 19 at 13:18
up vote 58 down vote accepted

Well, the vanilla you see on yogurt and ice cream cups refers to the flavor. The definition you are asking about talks about something else. It comes from the basic meaning of "vanilla", namely an ordinary flavor of ice cream or other dairy/bakery products, but has evolved to mean the default option that comes with no extra features. So for example if someone says

It's so hard to pick a laptop. I think I am going to go with the vanilla version.

They are basically saying: "I will buy the one with no special features or outstanding characteristics." This usage has nothing with taste. It comes from the notion that vanilla is the most common flavor among all the flavors.

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    Thank you for pointing out the etymology. I think it might be true that vanilla flavor is the default option for ice creams. I don't seem to have found a plain-flavored ice cream. Probably who coined such usage is a fan of ice creams not yogurts. – Cyker Aug 15 at 23:28
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    @Cyker The ice cream equivalent of "plain" is "sweet cream". It generally has no flavoring other than the dairy products and sugar/sweetening agents. This is a flavor I've seen in smaller ice cream shops but not necessarily in large brands found in stores. – Catija Aug 15 at 23:41
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    @Ian in English, "ice cream" generally requires milk products (or milk alternatives like soy milk, coconut milk, etc). Fruit-based frozen desserts are more commonly referred to as sorbet. So, strawberry ice cream is milk-based while strawberry sorbet has no dairy. – Catija Aug 16 at 11:59
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    I remember as a kid thinking that if you froze milk it would taste like vanilla. But this is really ironic, though. Real vanilla is actually an exotic seasoning that comes from the seeds of an orchid. Artificial vanilla is pretty dull but actual vanilla has a verycomplex flavor. I can only imagine that it's popularity or the introduction of vanillin that led to the idea of vanilla being 'plain'. – JimmyJames Aug 16 at 14:40
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    Also worth noting that "vanilla" yogurt, like all flavoured yogurts, is nearly always sweetened with added sugar in addition to being flavoured with vanilla bean (real or artificial). "Plain" yogurt is neither flavoured nor sweetened. – J... Aug 16 at 16:28

Vanilla can be a synonym for plain, but that's not what's happening here.

With yogourt, vanilla is referring to the noun, as described by Merriam-Webster:

1 b : a commercially important extract of the vanilla bean that is used especially as a flavoring

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    Well someone changed the title. I think I know what's the difference in taste because I bought both. But I'm still curious why vanilla is made a synonym for plain even though they taste differently, like, where does this sort of thing originate from? – Cyker Aug 15 at 23:00
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    @Cyker When it comes to yogourt specifically, vanilla is not a synonym for plain. Vanilla refers to the vanilla bean, a specific thing. This is similar to having orange-flavoured food even though "orange" is also a colour. Different words have different meanings and contexts. – Jason Bassford Aug 15 at 23:22
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    I'd go a little further: vanilla is hardly ever a synonym for plain in the context of food. It's the default for ice cream, and plain biscuits often have a little vanilla but aren't strongly flavoured. Vanilla=plain is usually metaphorical – Chris H Aug 16 at 14:31
  • Actually if you look further down that page on the Merrian Webster site the first definition of vanilla when used as an adjective is "flavored with vanilla". – Eric Nolan Aug 17 at 17:02
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    "I'm still curious why vanilla is made a synonym for plain" IT IS NOT. It's an idiom meaning "the most common variety". – Fattie Aug 18 at 7:58

The confusion seems to arise from the fact that in your quote from Merriam Webster, you provided only the second of two adjectival definitions. The whole definition is:

vanilla adjective

Definition of vanilla

1 : flavored with vanilla

2 : lacking distinction : plain, ordinary, conventional

In the case of Yogurt, the first is in use. And in that context "plain" simply means "unflavored" (although anyone who has tasted plain yogurt will tell you, after they stop grimacing and smacking their lips, that it certainly does have a flavor!)

Outside of Yogurt, or food flavoring in general (and maybe the sub-field of botany dealing with Mexican orchids) "vanilla" is just a synonym for plain; i.e. lacking distinction, ordinary, or, to throw in another example of this kind of thing, "common or garden".

The reason "vanilla" took on that second meaning of plain/ordinary etc, is that in foods such as ice cream, yogurt, and custard, vanilla was by far the most commonly used flavoring, so much so that it came to be regarded as...well, plain, ordinary, and so on.

Other examples of this kind of thing are the aforementioned "common or garden", and "box, standard" (sometimes mispronounced as "bog standard")

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    +1 I like your mentioning of common or garden and box, standard. Though I think it is worth noting that both terms are Britishisms. Also, I don't think bog standard is a mispronunciation, as it is seen as the standard/more common term of the two. See the BBC and The Phrase Finder – Eddie Kal Aug 16 at 15:21
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    In that case, and thinking back to my Scottish schooldays, the phrase really should not be being used to mean ordinary. As places you only visited if you really had to go, there was absolutely nothing plain and ordinary about the bogs in my school. :-) – tkp Aug 16 at 20:18
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    Please note that to someone who doesn't know what the word "vanilla" means, the first sentence on the Merriam Webster site doesn't really look like a definition! – Mr Lister Aug 17 at 19:38
  • @MrLister, Ha! Didn't even notice that. But you're right. It's perfectly possible for someone to come away thinking that vanilla yogurt is flavored with "any of a genus (Vanilla) of tropical American climbing epiphytic orchids". I can't imagine that tastes very pleasant. – tkp Aug 17 at 22:39

In my experience, vanilla in that sense is not used for food stuff. As you correctly notice, that would lead to confusion.

In other areas, where no confusion with the actual taste of vanilla is likely, it often means unembellished, without any added stuff.

So a vanilla operating system on your phone means that there are (almost) no pre-installed apps from your provider or other parties.
A vanilla car would be a basic version without any extra options.

  • Does this mean it's safe to substitute vanilla for plain as long as there isn't a flavor thing? I still don't understand why vanilla would mean unembellished since embellishment basically means adding something. If you taste both yogurts you know the vanilla edition has something added so it's not really plain. – Cyker Aug 15 at 23:06
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    It's just a matter of history--nobody sells "plain" ice cream. The closest you can get is vanilla-flavored, which is a mild, inoffensive flavor to most people. And ice creams of other flavors often add vanilla as well. It's just become part of the standard, common way ice cream is made, so in that context "vanilla" means "nothing added", and has come to mean that metaphorically elsewhere. But in foods, I would always assume "vanilla" means "vanilla flavoring added"--like vanilla coke, vanilla youghurt. – Lee Daniel Crocker Aug 16 at 0:11
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    @LeeDanielCrocker Lots of small ice cream companies sell unflavored ice cream... it's just called "sweet cream". – Catija Aug 16 at 13:36
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    @LeeDanielCrocker I think that varies - in Poland you have both "cream-flavored" and "vanilla-flavored" ice cream. You can even get cream-vanilla ice cream with the two flavors clearly separated. – Maciej Stachowski Aug 16 at 14:35
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    @Cyker: I would avoid substituting "vanilla" for "plain" anywhere. Doing so will make you come across ignorant and having poor taste to people who actually know what vanilla is, and that it's a very complex and very expensive flavor. As a non-native speaker it's useful to know people will sometimes use it to mean plain, but I wouldn't recommend doing that yourself. – R.. Aug 16 at 23:36

To answer the question in the title, vanilla yogurt is sweetened and tastes like vanilla, while plain yogurt is unsweetened and doesn't have added taste.

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    The question in the title was not present in the original version; apparently the question deviated from the author's original intent. – GalacticCowboy Aug 16 at 13:01
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    @GalacticCowboy No, it didn't. This was and is in the question body: "So I'm wondering what's the exact difference between these two words and how to use vanilla correctly so that the salesperson doesn't hand you the wrong yogurt." Now tell me how the title deviates from that. I merely made it more specific. This answer also answers the implied question from the question body. – userr2684291 Aug 18 at 14:14
  • Simple is best. And this answer is best: If a supermarket associate confused plain and vanilla yogurt, they should be shown the door. [joke] – Lambie Sep 19 at 21:43

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