1
: having or showing undue or excessive pride in one's appearance or achievements : conceited
2
: marked by futility or ineffectualness : unsuccessful, useless
vain efforts to escape
3
: having no real value : idle, worthless
vain pretensions
4
archaic : foolish, silly
vainly adverb
vainness noun
Phrases
in vain
1
: to no end : without success or result
her efforts were in vain
2
: in an irreverent or blasphemous manner
Being a religion writer, I have always tried to avoid using the Lord's name in vain. I have not always succeeded. Don Lattin
see also take in vain
Choose the Right Synonym for vain

futile, vain, fruitless mean producing no result.

futile may connote completeness of failure or unwisdom of undertaking.

resistance had proved so futile that surrender was the only choice left

vain usually implies simple failure to achieve a desired result.

a vain attempt to get the car started

fruitless comes close to vain but often suggests long and arduous effort or severe disappointment.

fruitless efforts to obtain a lasting peace

Example Sentences

For a half a century, scholars have searched in vain for the source of the jade that the early civilizations of the Americas prized above all else and fashioned into precious objects of worship, trade and adornment. William J. Broad, New York Times, 22 May 2002 … the miseries of people's lives ought not to be exploited ad libitum in the furtherance of our profits or our careers, and in the vain conviction that we understand everything. Richard Taruskin, New Republic, 24 Dec. 2001 It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847 Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813 Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain William Shakespeare, King Richard the Second, 1596 She is very vain about her appearance. He is the vainest man I know. A vain effort to quell the public's fears only made matters worse. Volunteers searched the area in the vain hope of finding clues. See More
Recent Examples on the Web Abrams told supporters that her efforts has not been in vain, saying her fight had allowed people to imagine a different state. Katie Mcinerney, BostonGlobe.com, 10 Nov. 2022 Her family was determined that Mallory’s death would not be in vain. Dateline Nbc, NBC News, 9 Nov. 2022 But even that epic restraint appears to have been in vain, as IRS-CI investigators nonetheless traced Zhong's coins to his accounts on an unnamed cryptocurrency exchange, which revealed his identity. WIRED, 7 Nov. 2022 But attempts by the sun to warm up the region will largely be in vain. Gerry Díaz, San Francisco Chronicle, 2 Nov. 2022 Fed officials had expected inflation to decline this year, but that outlook has been in vain so far. Nick Timiraos, WSJ, 1 Nov. 2022 Her parents object to this match, but she can’t get married anyway until Pamela (powerhouse singer Tiffany Mann), her vain older sister, takes a husband first. Los Angeles Times, 16 Nov. 2021 Foster has spent years trying in vain to get another job in the music or entertainment industry. Jonathan Bernstein, Rolling Stone, 19 Oct. 2022 Falcone later thanked the crowd at the vigil for coming out in such big numbers, saying their presence showed that Caruana Galizia’s murder would not be in vain. Kevin Schembri Orland, ajc, 16 Oct. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'vain.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History

Etymology

Middle English veyn "empty, futile, groundless, foolish, excessively proud," borrowed from Anglo-French vain, vein, going back to Latin vānus "lacking content, empty, illusory, marked by foolish or empty pride" — more at wane entry 1

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3

Time Traveler
The first known use of vain was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near vain

Cite this Entry

“Vain.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vain. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

Kids Definition

1
: having no success : useless
a vain attempt to escape
2
: proud of one's looks or abilities
in vain
1
: without success
2
: in an unholy way
vainly adverb
vainness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on vain

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