Recently I stumbled upon the word "Vanity". I looked its meaning online and found that it has two meanings as,

  1. Excessive pride in or admiration of one's own appearance or achievements.
  2. The quality of being worthless or futile.

In the first meaning the speaker would be considering himself/herself quite worth, that is why he has pride of it. But in the second meaning the speaker would be considering himself/herself worthless. The two meaning are quite opposite to each other. So in a sentence how do we decide which meaning is asserted by the speaker?

  • 1
    The two meanings are not necessarily contradictory. Indeed, the two definitions is exactly what vanity means. If your boss or your neighbor or an actress start acting as if they're the most important people in the world and they don't care about what you want or what you think then of course YOU are going to think they're the most worthless people in the world.
    – slebetman
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 11:33

4 Answers 4


There are lots of words with multiple definitions. You figure out which one is intended by the context. Yes, it's amusing when a word has two definitions that seem opposite each other, but it's usually clear which is meant from context. If it's not, then the sentence was poorly constructed. Well, sometimes people deliberately construct a sentence using such a word in an ambiguous way for humor value.

If you say, "Alice was filled with vanity after she got a starring role in a movie", clearly we mean pride. If you say, "It was vanity for Alice to suppose that she would ever get a starring role in a movie", clearly we mean futile.

As FumbleFingers notes in a comment, people rarely use the noun "vanity" to mean futility these days. That meaning is largely obsolete. We do still use the adjective "vain" to mean futile. As in, "He made a vain effort to climb the mountain". Most often it's used in the phrase "in vain", as in, "Her attempt to find the lost ring proved to be in vain."

There's a famous Bible quote: Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." If you read that quote out of context, I guess it would be ambiguous. Does he mean that everything is pride, or that everything is worthless? But if you read on, it's clear which: "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again." And so on. Clearly the point is that everything just goes around and around and little changes. It's all boring and pointless.


Context is typically the most important. When talking about Vanity, it refers to someone finding themselves very important, however, they are usually not as great as they think they are which is why you get the second definition of being worthless or futile.

Someone who looks in the mirror a lot has a high degree of vanity. They can also be called "vain" or "self-centred".

Usually Vanity is a negative trait to have. A speaker typically wouldn't consider themselves to be vain.


As for the second meaning, the speaker wouldn't generally consider himself worthless, but his efforts. That's how I've generally seen the word used.

It might become clearer if you analyze the adjective form of the word, which is vain. NOAD says:

vain (adj.) producing no result; useless : a vain attempt to tidy up the room

Changing that sentiment around to the noun form, we'd say something like:

Trying to clean up this room today would be vanity. It's too messy; we'll never get this clean in one day.

As for this question you asked:

The two meaning are quite opposite to each other. So in a sentence how do we decide which meaning is asserted by the speaker?

As in the case of any autoantonym, we only know the correct meaning by the context:

Bob, you dust the furniture while your brother dusts the cake.

Knowing that we don't generally sprinkle powdered sugar on tables and chairs or remove dust particles from food, we can easily figure out which meaning applies to each word.

  • 2
    I'm not convinced anyone today uses vanity to mean an exercise in futility (i.e. - something done in vain, without hope of success). Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 11:48
  • @Fumble - I agree, it's not a common word in everyday conversation. Good point.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 13:16
  • I can very much see using this meaning to add emphasis. "Last month's campaign to increase sales did not result in us reaching our goals. Was all of that effort in vain? I don't think so. Here's why..."
    – Preston
    Commented Aug 11, 2015 at 18:15

Both meanings of vanity involve "emptyness", i.e. futility.

Any undertaking which is futile (its goal is impossible) can be said to be "in vain". It is vanity to think an impossible goal can be achieved.

Excessive pride in outward appearance is considered an empty or futile concern, because we all grow old and lose the freshness of youth for one thing, and because the preener does not hear the world calling but is immersed in Self.

The apparent contradiction is a result of how the lexicographers have decided to phrase the definitions.

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