The Grammarphobia Blog

Wallflowers and shrinking violets

Q: Did botanical “wallflowers” and “shrinking violets” inspire the timid human ones?

A: Yes, though we wouldn’t describe botanical wallflowers and violets as timid or inconspicuous, especially when planted in a bed or border of a garden.

The term “wallflower” usually means Cheiranthus cheiri, a European plant “growing wild on old walls, on rocks, in quarries, etc., and cultivated in gardens for its fragrant flowers,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest literal example in the OED refers to “Wall floures” and several other names for the plant (from A Niewe Herball, Henry Lyte’s 1578 translation of a plant history by the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens).

Jonathon Green, writing in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, says the figurative sense is derived from the literal “wallflower,” apparently the wild variety that climbs up old walls and into crevices.

Green’s Dictionary defines the figurative “wallflower” as “a woman (occas. a man) who does not join in dancing at a ball or dance, either through her inability to find a partner or through her desire to remain solo; thus a retiring, shy person.”

The OED says “violet” refers to a “plant or flower of the genus Viola, esp. V. odorata, the sweet-smelling violet, growing wild, and cultivated in gardens; the flowers are usually purplish blue, mauve, or white.”

The first written mention of the flower in English, according to Oxford, is from Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Mirie it is in time of June … Violet & rose flour Woneþ þan in maidens bour.” (By 1370 the name of the flower, from the Old French violete, was being used for a color.)

The earliest example we’ve found for “shrinking violet” uses the term literally to describe a flower that’s hard to see in the wild (suggestive of the modern figurative sense):

“There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy, neither the good nor the ill of which was then known; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.”

(From “Ronald of the Perfect Hand,” an essay by the English poet and critic Leigh Hunt in the Feb. 23, 1820, issue of The Indicator, a literary magazine edited by Hunt.)

Oxford defines the figurative meaning of “shrinking violet” as “a shy or modest person.” The dictionary’s first example is from In Times Like These, a 1915 book by the Canadian feminist Nellie McClung:

“Voting will not be compulsory; the shrinking violets will not be torn from their shady fence-corner; the ‘home bodies’ will be able to still sit in rapt contemplation of their own fireside.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples, including one in an 1833 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American magazine, that compares Thekla in Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy to Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“The timidity of Thekla in her first scene, her trembling silence in the commencement, and the few words she addresses to her mother, reminds us of the unobtrusive simplicity of Juliet’s first appearance; but the impression is difficult: the one is the shrinking violet, the other the expanded rose-bud.”

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