What do people mean with the term "Vanilla"?

I see it more and more often. For example, with regard to World of Warcraft:

Which Vanilla achievements will be lost with Cataclysm’s release?

And also in this answer about Minecraft.

If you're playing Vanilla...

  • 22
    It's worth pointing out that there's a Wikipedia Article on Vanilla software.
    – MrLemon
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 12:47
  • 5
    I could have sworn I've seen this question here before...
    – Kodama
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 14:58
  • 6
    Found it. Same question on English Stack Exchange: english.stackexchange.com/questions/182519/… I knew I've seen it before :)
    – Kodama
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 14:59
  • 3
    No whips or chains can be used
    – DVK
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 17:36
  • 3
    Remember that Vanilla is not the trendiest flavor, but is far and away the most popular. #foodforthought
    – corsiKa
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 19:21

4 Answers 4


Vanilla usually means the base game, without any modifications or in WoW's case DLC's/Expansion packs.

  • 8
    Another term for this (often used by KSP) is "stock", or what ships with the game. Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 16:21
  • 4
    Or, also used quite a bit in the WoW community, "classic".
    – Kroltan
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 10:52

Computer software [...] is called Vanilla when not customized from its original form, meaning that it is used without any customizations or updates applied to it.
- Wikipedia

Hence, not especially in WoW, it means only the base software without any expansions/add-ons.

As for the origin of the term..I don't really want to get into that, just look up "SMBC vanilla", right?

  • 3
    In fact, the article specifically mentions World of Warcraft: "For example, World of Warcraft could refer to either the original game or one of the four expansion packs, so users may refer to the original as "vanilla" to distinguish it from the subsequent versions."
    – MrLemon
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 12:49
  • 2
    It is strange that "vanilla" means plain, when in fact vanilla is a flavouring, just as is strawberry or toffee. Why don't people just use "plain"? I don't know! Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 17:39
  • 2
    @PaddyLandau You'd probably get a more thorough explanation at the ELU site, but it seems that many ice creams are essentially vanilla plus added flavoring, e.g. vanilla with cherries in it. The base vanilla is thus the plain alternative to a more complicated mix.
    – Brythan
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 17:45
  • 1
    Vanilla is considered the "default" flavor of ice cream, at least in the US. Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 16:09
  • 1
    Please note that the explanation of SMBC is wrong: linguistrix.com/blog/?p=738
    – Kijewski
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 0:45

When applied to technology, the word vanilla means “ordinary, default, unmodified”. When specifically applied to gaming, it means the default game, without any add-ons.

Shaeldon speculated that this meaning might derive from vanilla ice-cream being the first and still the most frequent flavour. No. 7892142 hinted at a sexual meaning. They’re both right: the Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about vanilla:

1660s, “pod of the vanilla plant,” from Spanish vainilla “vanilla plant,” literally “little pod,” diminutive of vaina “sheath,” from Latin vagina “sheath of an ear of grain, hull of a plant” (see vagina). So called from the shape of the pods. European discovery 1521 by Hernando Cortes’ soldiers on reconnaissance in southeastern Mexico. Meaning “flavoring extracted from the vanilla bean” is attested by 1728. Meaning “conventional, of ordinary sexual preferences” is 1970s, from notion of whiteness and the common choice of vanilla ice cream.

Etymological dictionaries tend to work in reverse chronological order, as they describe where words come from. So let’s recast this. A Latin word for a sheath, scabbard, or the hull of a plant was inherited into Spanish, where a diminutive (“little pod”) was applied to a certain plant. That plant name came into English where the meaning was expanded to include the flavouring extracted from the beans of the plant.

As this flavouring was the default in ice-cream, it was expanded metaphorically to refer to “conventional” or “ordinary” sexual preferences (i.e., non-BDSM) and from there to various other meanings of conventional, default, or ordinary. It is now particularly prevalent in technological circles.*

Incidentally, yes, the word vanilla is etymologically related to vagina but this is, in fact, completely unrelated to this usage. They developed independently.

* This, at least, is my experience. In fact, this use of vanilla is found in all sorts of contexts, but in my personal experience the two most prevalent contexts are the original (sex) and technology.

I spend far more of my time on English Language & Usage than I do on Arqade.

  • 3
    Holy in-depth etymology batman! This is a wonderfully, over-the-top explanation, thank you.
    – AWinkle
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 13:55
  • Thanks, @AWinkle. I'm far more interested in language than I am in gaming, so this one was right in my bailiwick. And this is quite an interesting etymology, given the wonderful coincidence that two distinct sexual meanings evolved completely independently from the same root non-sexual word.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 14:46


adjective - informal adjective: vanilla; adjective: plain vanilla

  1. having no special or extra features; ordinary or standard. "choosing plain vanilla technology wherever you can will save you money"

(definition compliments of google).

When applied to games/software, it refers to the game without modifications (custom mods or expansions). It can also mean that no updates were applied to the base game.

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