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

Have you ever been confused by the definition of vain? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word vain, including its definition, etymology, usage, examples, and more!

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free, writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What does the word vain mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Language Dictionary and Dictionary, the adjective vain (pronounced veɪn) has two distinct definitions. The first can be used to describe someone who is excessively proud, or overly concerned about their appearance or qualities. This person is full of self-importance but may have no real value. Their personal vanity is more important to them than actually improving upon themselves or their own qualities, and their appearance comes before anything else. For example, someone might be considered vain if they spend so much time perfecting their look before a school dance that they miss out on photos and fun moments with friends. 

The second definition is more often used to describe an action and can be used to describe something that is pointless or futile. For example, someone could have vain hope for a bright future, or make a vain attempt or vain effort to bring their grade up from failing to an A+. Things can be also said to be taken in vain or done in vain. The most common of these is taking God’s name or the Lord’s name in vain. 

There are also many different languages that use the word vain to mean either being overly proud, or pointless or futile. These do have two different sets of translations because they have two separate meanings, though they are considered homonyms in English. Both of these translation word lists are provided by Word Sense.

Definition 1 – Overly proud, particularly about one’s appearance.

  • Spanish: vanidoso‎
  • German: eitel‎
  • Dutch: ijdel‎
  • French: vaniteux.
  • Maori: whakapehapeha‎, whakahīhī‎
  • Greek: ματαιόδοξος‎
  • Russian: тщесла́вный‎, показно́й‎
  • Finnish: turhamainen‎
  • Persian: ایفده‎ (ifode)
  • Armenian: սնապարծ‎
  • Catalan: vanitós‎
  • Swedish: fåfäng‎
  • Scottish Gaelic: mòr às‎, sgòideasach‎, sgòideil‎, uaibhreach‎, uailleach‎
  • Portuguese: vaidoso‎ (masc.), vão‎
  • Italian: vanitoso‎, vanesio‎
  • Hebrew: גאוותן‎ (ga’avtán)
  • Polish: próżny‎

Definition 2 – Futile or to no end.

  • Catalan: va‎
  • Hebrew: חסר תועלת‎ (khasár to’élet)
  • Finnish: turha‎, tyhjä‎
  • Spanish: vano‎ (masc.), vacuo‎ (masc.)
  • French: vain‎, futile‎
  • Nynorsk: forgjeves‎
  • Dutch: nutteloos‎, tevergeefs‎
  • Scottish Gaelic: faoin‎
  • Russian: тще́тный‎, напра́сный‎, су́етный‎
  • Czech: marný‎ (masc.)
  • Portuguese: vão‎
  • German: unnützlich‎
  • Bokmål: forgjeves‎
  • Italian: vano‎
  • Armenian: ունայն‎
  • Georgian: ამაო‎

What are synonyms and antonyms for the word vain?

There are many different words that one can use in place of the word vain. These are called synonyms, which are words and phrases that have the same meaning as another word or phrase. Since the word vain has two different definitions, this means that the word will have two different sets of synonyms. These lists of synonyms for the word vain are provided by Thesaurus.

Definition 1 – Having an inflated opinion of one’s own appearance.

  • stuck-up
  • inflated
  • puffed up
  • arrogant
  • self-important
  • big-headed
  • cocky
  • egotistical
  • proud
  • haughty
  • vainglorious
  • conceited
  • narcissistic
  • egoistic
  • boastful
  • high-and-mighty
  • ostentatious
  • pleased with oneself
  • swaggering
  • swollen-headed
  • egocentric
  • overweening

Definition 2 – Pointless or to no end.

  • pointless
  • unavailing
  • in vicious circle
  • delusory
  • bootless
  • insignificant
  • unimportant
  • petty
  • misleading
  • not a prayer
  • paltry
  • hollow
  • no-win
  • going nowhere
  • useless
  • frivolous
  • delusive
  • worthless
  • barren
  • futile
  • trivial
  • trifling
  • profitless
  • empty
  • shuck
  • puny
  • unproductive
  • void
  • otiose
  • abortive
  • unprofitable
  • slight
  • valueless
  • senseless
  • time-wasting
  • idle
  • sterile
  • fruitless
  • inefficacious
  • unnotable
  • nugatory
  • on a treadmill

Since the word vain has two different meanings, this also means that it will have two different sets of antonyms. Antonyms are words and phrases that have the opposite meaning as another word or phrase. These sets of antonyms for the word vain are also provided by Thesaurus. 

Definition 1 – Overly proud of one’s own appearance.

  • unpretentious
  • manageable
  • unassuming
  • soft-spoken
  • hesitant
  • shy
  • supplicatory
  • blushing
  • polite
  • bashful
  • timorous
  • apprehensive
  • sheepish
  • gentle
  • reverential
  • subservient
  • self-effacing
  • biddable
  • tractable
  • demure
  • unambitious
  • courteous
  • obliging
  • diffident
  • standoffish
  • self-conscious
  • backward
  • meek
  • sedate
  • docile
  • tentative
  • fearful
  • quiet
  • content
  • retiring
  • unostentatious
  • submissive
  • obsequious
  • reserved
  • withdrawn
  • deferential
  • modest
  • humble
  • timid
  • unobtrusive
  • lowly
  • servile
  • simple
  • respectful
  • ordinary
  • mild

Definition 2 – Pointless or futile.

  • material
  • heavy
  • exigent
  • influential
  • grave
  • paramount
  • great
  • essential
  • marked
  • importunate
  • critical
  • important
  • crucial
  • salient
  • serious
  • signal
  • principal
  • large
  • decisive
  • foremost
  • conspicuous
  • earnest
  • meaningful
  • of note
  • relevant
  • big
  • necessary
  • far-reaching
  • valuable
  • primary
  • mattering much
  • momentous
  • significant
  • esteemed
  • vital
  • standout
  • determining
  • of moment
  • of substance
  • weighty
  • extensive
  • exceptional
  • ponderous
  • considerable
  • pressing
  • substantial
  • imperative
  • big-league
  • front-page
  • something
  • chief
  • urgent

What is the origin of the word vain?

According to Etymonline, the word vain has been used to mean devoid of value or unimportant since the year 1300. This word comes from the Old French vain or vein, which meant worthless or void. The Old french words vain and vein have been used since the 12th century. These both come from the Latin vanus meaning empty or void, which take on a figurative meaning of idle or fruitless. This comes from the Proto-Indo-European root wano which means to leave or abandon. The word vain has been used since the 1690s to describe someone who is conceited or self-important. Earlier, it was used to mean silly or foolish in the 14th century. The phrase in vain has been used since the year 1300, from the Latin in vanum. Related words include vainly, vainness, vanity, and vainglory.

Overall, the word vain is an adjective that can be used to describe someone who either has an inflated view of their own appearance or is overly proud, or it can be used to describe something that is pointless or futile. The word vain is often used in the term “in vain,” which is used to describe things that have been done to no end.