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Shrinking violet

Q From Nigel Clark: I find shrinking violet to be a curious phrase. Violets are certainly small but can’t shrink. I can’t find on the Internet where this comes from.

A I’m not surprised. It takes more than a little teasing out, to the extent that few reference books say much about where it comes from. Most stick to verbal variations on shrugged shoulders.

The violet is definitely the flowering plant, specifically the wild European sweet violet (Viola odorata), which is also naturalised in North America, having been taken there by colonists. This plant has had a special place in people’s affections at least since classical times because of its medicinal value and its scent. A curiosity of the active chemical constituent of the latter is that after a few seconds it briefly inhibits the sense of smell, a valuable property when households and towns were whiffy. Violets were added to the rushes on the floors of medieval houses to sweeten rooms and posies were carried by ladies to block out the stink of the streets.

The violet has long had figurative associations with qualities such as faithfulness and chastity, but especially with modesty. There’s a good reason for this. Wild violets are dainty plants whose small flowers are often hidden among its leaves and they are frequently inconspicuous among larger and more aggressive plants. It’s hardly surprising that this self-effacing species should have become linked to the idea of modesty, even though it colonises vigorously by seeds and underground runners and is sometimes regarded as an invasive pest by gardeners.

The term shrinking violet appears quite suddenly on both sides of the Atlantic in the early nineteenth century. In Britain, the poet and journalist Leigh Hunt, born in London to one-time American colonists, is first known to have used it, in a magazine called The Indicator in February 1820. In the US, James Gates Percival included it in a poem, The Perpetual Youth of Nature, published in the United States Literary Gazette on 1 November 1825 and later widely anthologised. I suspect that the closeness of the dates is accidental, and that both writers were separately drawing on an existing idea whose source I haven’t been able to identify.

The sense of shrinking in both cases is not that of becoming smaller, or of recoiling from something distasteful, but of being retiring, shy or self-effacing.

For decades after these two appearances, shrinking violet was a poetical term and uncommon at that. It didn’t begin to appear more widely in either country until near the end of the century. Part of its growing appeal may be linked to the fervour for violets in Europe and North America, especially Parma violets; by the 1890s the violet had become the third most important commercially-grown flower, after carnations and roses, often sold on street corners with the cry “lovely sweet violets”.

Since then the phrase has emulated the expansive qualities of its wild begetter by becoming an ineradicable cliché.

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Page created 25 Sep 2010