What was said? “I’m no shrinking violet. I’ll tell him exactly how I see it!”
Did someone really say that? Yes, when in northern Michigan, a friend said that about another friend and his idiosyncrasies.
What does it mean? Shrinking violet refers to a shy or modest individual, so in the case above, my friend was saying that she was in fact the opposite – more outspoken and outgoing.
Most sources say that the phrase originated in the UK and refers to the violet flower, from the Viola family of flowers, which also includes pansies. The violet flower in the UK was known as a reclusive and understated flower, that is modest in nature because it grows close to the ground, is quite dainty and its flowers are sometimes hidden in its leaves and by nearby shrubs. A poetry magazine, The Indicator, contains what many believe was the first written instance of the saying from Leigh Hunt, published in 1820:
There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.
In the USA, the figurative use of the term describing individuals as shy/modest is most common. Also, there are two more commercial uses for the term:
- Weight loss wrap titled “shrinking violet” helping women “shrink a size”
- Book series for young girls where a “shrinking violet” is the main character and has many adventures making her go from normal to mini-me from time to time
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