Wallflower – Idiom, Meaning & Definition

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

It might not be a compliment if you’ve been called a wallflower. Although a wallflower is a very real flower, its name has become synonymous with somebody left aside due to shyness or societal standards, often unfairly.

It also is a term that can be confusing to those new to the English language. After all, the literal definition of the flower is explained in its name, so why would anyone think it could mean something different?

Let’s look at the idiomatic term, wallflower, its origins, and how to use it properly.

What Is the Meaning of Wallflower?

Wallflower Idiom Meaning Definition

An idiom is a word or phrase with a figurative meaning separate from its literal meaning. A true wallflower is an old-world perennial herb of the genus Cheriranthus. These bright, clustered flowers often take root in the cracks and gaps of stone or concrete walls. When mature and flowering, these plants look like they are growing out of the wall, hence the name – wallflower.

The analogous meaning of the word has been applied to a person who “clings to a wall” rather than participating in an activity. Wallflower is often applied to a shy or unpopular person standing along the wall at a dance or party.

Is Wallflower One Word or Two?

Wallflower is one word, not two. Although the meaning would likely not confuse your audience if misspelled, both the literal flower and idiom are spelled as one compound word consisting of three syllables.

What Does It Mean to Be a Wallflower?

A wallflower is a person who remains outside the festivities of a party or attends a dance but does not participate in the dancing. A wallflower may simply be shy or may be unpopular for some reason. The word is also sometimes applied to people or organizations left on the sidelines of any activity, not necessarily those attending a party.

For example:

  • She hadn’t planned to be a wallflower but realized she recognized nobody there after arriving at the party.
  • When she was in middle school, she gained the reputation of being a bit of a wallflower since she was often left out of social events.

Origin of Wallflower

Wallflower Ngram
Wallflower usage trend.

The colloquial sense of wallflower was first recorded in 1820 as a “woman who sits by the wall at parties, often for want of a partner,” although it was likely used before this. The term was restricted to women, while a wall-prop applied to men and was showcased in Kipling’s story “A Friend’s Friend” in 1888.

Today, dictionaries use the term synonymously with a person of either biological gender.

Let’s Review

Although a wallflower is a very real type of flower, it was used to describe a woman who stood along a wall without a dance partner as early as the 1820s. The male counterpart, a wall-prop, was humorously used in Kipling’s literature later in the century.

Over the years, the term has come to mean a person of either sex who stands on the outskirts of a party or dance or is unpopular.

It also can be used to describe a person or organization left on the sidelines of an activity.

Check out some of the other idioms we covered: