The Meaning of In Vain: What It Is and How To Use It

Ever wondered what the term in vain means? This guide will provide all of the information you need on the term in vain, including its definition, origin, usage, and more!

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What does the term in vain mean?

According to Vocabulary and Dictionary, the English language term in vain, pronounced ɪn-veɪn, means that something is done with no result or effect. If some effort or action is marked by futility or ineffectualness, it means that it is in vain. This adverb is frequently used to describe things that are unsuccessful. One could have a vain hope that they will someday win an Academy Award for acting if they are working on a farm and have never done so much as a school play. One could make a vain attempt or a vain effort to win the vote of their peers to be class president if they have only been a student at the school for a week and don’t know anyone. Something is done in vain if the desired outcome does not match the actual result. People often also use this term to describe other using someone’s name in a bad manner.

Vain can also be used in a couple of other ways. According to Merriam-Webster, the word vain can be used as a characteristic of false pride to describe someone who has an exaggerated sense of self-importance, excessive pride, or a high opinion of their own appearance. It can also describe something that has little to no value or that is considered worthless, or, archaically, something that is foolish or silly.

What is the origin of the term in vain?

According to The Idioms, the phrase in vain has been used since the 1300s. Uses of vain meaning “empty’ date all the way back to the Bible. Then, people began adding the word “in” to denote something taking on an empty or fruitless purpose. 

Etymonline states that the word vain has been in use since around the year 1300. This comes from the Old French vain, or vein, meaning “worthless, invalid, void, or feeble.” This comes from the Latin vānus which means “empty or void,” or figuratively “fruitless or idle.” American Heritage Dictionary states that this word has Indo-European roots.

This is not to be confused with the word vane, meaning a metal wind detector. According to Etymonline, this homophone originated in the early 15th century as a Southern England variant on fane, meaning flag or banner.

Many different words meaning vain in the romance languages have the same roots as the English word for vain, according to Google Translate. Vano is the Italian word for vain, vanidoso is the Spanish word for vain, vaniteux is the French word for vain, and vaidoso is the Portuguese word for vain. Since all of the romance languages have Latin roots, it is clear why all of their words for vain will be similar to the English word vain.

What are synonyms for the term in vain?

There are many different alternate words and phrases people can use in place of the term in vain. People might choose to use a synonym to expand their vocabulary or to avoid repeating the same phrase over and over again. Below is a list of words with similar meanings from Thesaurus.

  • Fruitless
  • Bootless
  • No dice
  • Nugatory
  • Worthless
  • Abortive
  • Barren
  • Out the window
  • Empty
  • Exhausted
  • Forlorn
  • Idle
  • Impracticable
  • Trivial
  • Delusive
  • Unproductive
  • To no effect
  • Save one’s breath
  • Unavailing
  • Unprofitable
  • Valueless
  • To no purpose
  • Ineffective
  • Hollow
  • Impractical
  • Unreal
  • Unsatisfactory
  • Unsuccessful
  • Insufficient
  • Unneeded
  • Useless
  • Otiose
  • Trifling
  • Unsubstantial
  • Sterile
  • To no avail
  • Unimportant
  • Ineffectual
  • Profitless
  • Resultless

How can the term in vain be used in a sentence?

The phrase in vain can be used in a variety of different circumstances. This is considered a polite term, so one does not need to worry about the phrase being too casual to use in professional or formal conversations. In this first example, Regis and his wife Frankie are discussing a story they saw on the news.

Regis: Frankie, did you see that car chase story on the news? 

Frankie: I didn’t, what happened? Was it here?

Regis: Yeah, it was down the block! Police officers pursued the guy for like fifty miles, but their efforts were in vain. He made it all the way to Canada on a quarter tank of gas.

Frankie: Wow. That’s awful, but impressive.

Regis: I know!

Here, Regis uses the phrase in vain to describe the police officers’ efforts. They were not able to catch the mean that was escaping during the car chase, so their efforts were therefore in vain. In this next example, Kellie and Izzy are discussing their standardized test results.

Kellie: How did you do?

Izzy: Better than expected! My stats say these scored could get me into an Ivy like Yale, or at least a school like NYU or UCLA. How about you?

Kellie: Not so great… I hoped they’d be better, but it looks like my aspirations were all in vain. I’ll probably end up at a terrible school.

Izzy: Don’t say that! You can always retake. I’ll help you study!

Overall, the phrase in vain means that something has been done with little to no result or effect. This term can be used in a variety of different situations to describe things or actions that are unsuccessful or fruitless. People often also use this term to describe other using someone’s name in a bad manner.