• The cultural climate, defining atmosphere, or physical location in which a person lives or in which events occur


Philosophers and psychologists have long argued over the question of "nature versus nurture," persistently debating about the importance of inherent characteristics and the influence of environment. For those wishing to describe the latter, the term milieu might prove extremely useful. After all, how better to advocate for the importance of setting than to discuss the surroundings in which an object exists?

Milieu is used to describe the characteristic atmosphere which surrounds a notable event or series of events. A milieu is a general, overarching attribute that gives context to a physical location or set of occurrences. Essentially, it describes the type of environment in which things happen. A milieu is made up of people, emotions, attitudes, and physical objects - really, anything that is significant to a setting. Since milieu gives details of the atmosphere of events, the term can pertain to any feature that one wishes to describe. Thus, a milieu can be physical, cultural, emotional, or any other quality. Whatever its application, knowing the milieu of something usually affords valuable background information. For example, knowing that a university possesses a liberal milieu might tell you that its curriculum encourages broad intellectual pursuits as opposed to specific, technical training.

The somewhat nebulous nature of milieu can be confusing, but this is actually key to understanding the word. A milieu is not meant to be specific. Instead, the word is more akin to a general impression, describing an overall theme or aura. For instance, referring to a young woman as raised in an aristocratic milieu gives a broad idea of her socioeconomic environment. General as the term may be, though, describing a milieu can provide valuable information and insight about a situation.

Example: New Yorkers tend to take pride in their city's distinctive and eclectic milieu.

Example: Walking into the pet store, I was immediately engulfed by the cacophonous and smelly milieu.

Example: Silicon Valley has a milieu of innovation and risk-taking which surrounds the entrepreneurs.


English borrows the word milieu from French (hence the characteristic sound of the diphthong in the second syllable). However, the definition in French is slightly different, as in that language the word means "middle" or, metaphorically, "middle path." Despite its prevalence in French vocabulary, the roots of milieu are actually Latin; the word is formed from mi (meaning "middle" or "median") and lieu (meaning "location"). Milieu had entered English conversations with its present-day meaning by the mid-late nineteenth century.

In Literature

From Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner:

Finally, adoption agencies routinely send staff members to evaluate the child's milieu, and no reasonable agency is going to send an agent to Afghanistan.

Here, milieu is being used to describe the home environment and living conditions of orphans, which are taken into consideration before a specific child is allowed for adoption.


  • Milieu is the surroundings that make you you.


Environment, Setting, Atmosphere

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of milieu. Did you use milieu in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.