I am given to understand by the Chambers Dictionary and Webster's that vain can be understood as thoughtless, empty-headed, useless, which all sound rather strong to me. Is it likely that a native English speaker takes offence at the following phrase?

You are vain.

If not, does the word have any potentially dangerous usages?

  • Same as its translation into Russian. After all, it's a Dark Side of pride :) – Philoto May 27 '11 at 14:04
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    I think this is particularly interesting because it raises the question of how might a non-native speaker determine if a word or phrase is insulting. – Kit Z. Fox May 27 '11 at 14:09
  • @Kit Probably just like @Vitaly - asking native speakers if it is offensive or not. It won't always give reliable result - different people will be offended by different things, but it's a good start. – Philoto May 27 '11 at 14:19
  • I would imagine that anyone who's heard the song You're So Vain ('a critical profile of a self-absorbed lover; Simon aptly asserts "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you"') wouldn't like being called vain. That's the first association that comes to mind for me. – aedia λ May 27 '11 at 16:27

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition makes it quite clear that it indicates disapproval (“excessively high opinion”):

vain (adjective)
having or showing an excessively high opinion of one's appearance, abilities, or worth: their flattery made him vain.

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Vanity is one of the seven deadly sins. So when you accuse someone of being guilty of a cardinal sin you are rebuking them for a serious flaw in their character.

By the way, you are greedy and lustful.

Oh, I didn't mean you.

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As far as I know, vanity is a negative trait in any cultural context. And thus, "vain" is an insult to anyone who understands the word.

It is often used as quite a mild insult, I think (like a lighter, relatively benign form of arrogance), but can also be used a quite harsh description.

I don't know about "dangerous", but I would advise against using the term unless you're trying to call someone vain (obviously)

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Vain does not mean thoughtless, empty-headed, or useless. It expresses excessive pride which is considered a negative character trait. So yes, many people would be offended if you told them they were vain.

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Well, vain means what it means. Whether it's offensive or not depends on the cultural context of the addressee. I would say that it is usually offensive in British and American culture to describe someone as vain, but that's a sociological rather than linguistic observation.

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