I'm reading a poem which contains the lines "How vainly men themselves amaze / to win the palm, the oak, the bays". This got me wondering about words like "vainly" or "in vain" not meaning:

"doing something to no avail"


"there being no point in even attempting something because it couldn't possibly produce the desired outcome"

Is the second one actually a different meaning or is it just a question of context? Are there any words which mean specifically the second? All I can think of right now is "pointlessly".

closed as unclear what you're asking by Bradd Szonye, tchrist, TimLymington, anongoodnurse, David M Apr 29 '14 at 23:20

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Avail: use, benefit, or advantage. To no avail would be, then, to no use, benefit, or advantage. Nothing useful came out of the attempt; it was unsuccessful. It is similar, then, to futile.

How do you know something is in vain unless you've tried? Futile and vainly connote an attempt:

All his efforts were in vain; resistance was futile.

In your second 'definition', you are assuming the chances are so remote one doesn't even try. That is not in vain or futile. That is impossible, in which case attempting something would be foolish. As in the following (vainly is misused):

His vainly attempted to walk across the Pacific Ocean.

A good dictionary should give you the denotation (exact definition) of a word, as well as, somewhere among the synonyms, the connotation of a word. The latter is where the subtlety and elegance of words lie.

Synonyms for pointless or impossible:

senseless, meaningless, stupid, silly, useless, absurd, irrelevant, worthless, nonsensical, inane, without rhyme or reason.

Edited to add: I read the poem The Garden. It is about the contrasted virtues of the active and the contemplative life. The last couplet (which became a standard sundial inscription) is "How could such sweet and wholsome Hours / Be reckon'd but with herbs and flow'rs!"

As the active life is being criticized, it is in the sense of men not finding contentment except in 'the Garden' (originally that of Eden). Vainly men seek contentment in worldly pursuits. That is not proudly but unsuccessfully.


In the poem, I feel the word "vainly" is not employing the same meaning as the idiom, "in vain".

OED defines vain as:

Having or showing an excessively high opinion of one’s appearance, abilities, or worth:

Also consider the the suffix -ly as,

an adjective suffix meaning “-like”: saintly; cowardly.

How the men win "the palm, the oaks, and the bays," is done in such a vain-like fashion that causes them to be amazed.

The use of 'vainly' in the peom, is essential in highlighting the hubristic nature of how men view their abilities; specifically the ones that allow them to achieve said prizes.

Note: Wikipedia has some notes referring to author's use of 'vainly' to allude to vanitas.

Edit: I seemed to have tip-toed around your questions. For sake of clarity:

1.) Is the second one actually a different meaning or is it just a question of context?

The quote you provided, which I'm assuming is 'the second one', fits one of the definitions of vain, "having no success : not producing a desired result."

However, I do believe and as I attempted to explain above, that the word 'vain' isn't conveying this particular meaning.

2.) Are there any words which mean specifically the second?

For a list of synonyms, medica has provided an few words that can answer your that.

  • 1
    Amaze here is meant as a maze - to make crazy, to overwhelm; men overwhelm themselves to no use, benefit, or advantage in pursuing the palm (sainthood), the oak (conquering hero), the bay (poet/?art)... I don't think it's done from pride, but in vain. – anongoodnurse Apr 27 '14 at 3:41
  • @medica Ah, I see now. I probably should have looked deeper into the context of the poem. Thank you for pointing that out :) – user73091 Apr 27 '14 at 5:09

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