c. 1300, "devoid of real value, idle, unprofitable," from Old French vain, vein "worthless, void, invalid, feeble; conceited" (12c.), from Latin vanus "empty, void," figuratively "idle, fruitless," from PIE *wano-, suffixed form of root *eue- "to leave, abandon, give out."
Meaning "conceited, elated with a high opinion of oneself" first recorded 1690s in English; earlier "silly, idle, foolish" (late 14c.). Phrase in vain "to no effect" (c. 1300, after Latin in vanum) preserves the original sense. Related: Vainly; vainness. Compare also vainglory.