Shrinking Violet

by Joanne Mason on May 6, 2013


Last Friday, I read the following tweet from @BobKievra, the city editor at the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram and Gazette:

Funeral director for Tsarnaev is no shrinking violet – Worcester Telegram & Gazette –  #BostonMarathon #Worcester

Kievra is referring to Peter A. Stefan, the Worcester funeral director who is handling the funeral arrangements for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died on April 19.  You can read more about Peter Stefan, and his business, here.

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 window sill.  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?

(Photo by sjonja via istockphoto)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Catanea April 1, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Don’t they grow in shady places? Not right out in the “limelight” of the sun.


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