Shrinking Violet

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sun Jan 21 01:17:31 UTC 2001

As pointed out by Barry, Elizabeth Phillips did a fine job in unearthing
an 1827 occurrence of "shrinking violet" for William Safire's column.
This is a literal usage.  The OED has 1915 as its earliest citation for
"shrinking violet" as a metaphor for a shy person.  Here are some earlier
examples of that sense:

1892 _Century Mag._ Feb.  The drooping violet of Maverick, that's what you
were -- the shy little Denver daisy....We've got to make you swat
somewhere for that shrinking violet business -- eh, boys?

1913 Marvin Dana _Within the Law_ 290 "You can't do anything to us,"
Aggie declared, strongly.  There remained no trace of the shrinking violet
that had been Miss Helen Travers West.  Now, she revealed merely the
business woman engaged in a fight against the law, which was opposed
definitely to her peculiar from of buisness.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Public Services     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  and Lecturer in Legal Research            Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at     

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