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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Mason

Shrinking Violet

"How many violets do you think we picked for our mothers? Or elementary school teachers?" a friend asked me the other day.

"Over the years? Probably thousands," I answered.

When I think about how pervasive violets are here in New England, the phrase shrinking violet makes me curious.

A shrinking violet is a shy or modest person, someone who doesn’t want to be in the limelight.

Example 1

I don’t think Bill will get the promotion because he’s such a shrinking violet. We need a manager who is outgoing.

Example 2

At the high school dance, several freshmen stood by the wall like shrinking violets.

Like many idioms, shrinking violet doesn’t have a clear origin. The OED’s first reference is dated 1915. Could it be that the violet is such a delicate flower that, in some kind of flower battle, it wouldn’t stand up for itself?

I’m not sure. I like how Christine Ammer’s take on it in her Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches:

Why the violet, a small but common shade-loving perennial, should be chosen to designate shyness is unclear. On the contrary, violets can boldly take over patches of ground, and gardeners may even find them difficult to eradicate from unwanted spaces.

Indeed, as Ammer might have predicted, my childhood back yard was full of violets and every spring I picked dozens of them for my mother, who displayed them in colorful bud vases on the kitchen windowsill. Mom loved them, but Dad, who took care of the yard, considered them weeds and wanted to get rid of them. Fortunately, my aunt, somehow, intervened and the violets were there to stay.

What do you think? What might be the association between violets and shyness or modesty? Do you think the color violet plays a role in the origin of the phrase?

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