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.


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.


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)


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.


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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