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[vahr-nish] /ˈvɑr nɪʃ/
a preparation consisting of resinous matter, as copal or lac, dissolved in an oil (oil varnish) or in alcohol (spirit varnish) or other volatile liquid. When applied to the surface of wood, metal, etc., it dries and leaves a hard, more or less glossy, usually transparent coating.
the sap of certain trees, used for the same purpose (natural varnish)
any of various other preparations similarly used, as one having India rubber, pyroxylin, or asphalt as its chief constituent.
a coating or surface of varnish.
something resembling or suggesting a coat of varnish; gloss.
superficial polish or external show, especially to conceal some defect or inadequacy:
The play has a varnish of witty dialogue.
British. nail polish.
verb (used with object)
to apply varnish to; coat or cover with varnish.
to give a glossy appearance to.
to give an improved appearance to; adorn.
to give a superficially pleasing appearance to, especially in order to deceive:
to varnish the truth.
Origin of varnish
1300-50; Middle English varnisch < Middle French vernis, verniz < Medieval Latin vernicium sandarac < Medieval Greek bernī́kē, syncopated variant of Greek Berenī́kē, city in Cyrenaica
Related forms
varnisher, noun
varnishy, adjective
revarnish, verb (used with object)
well-varnished, adjective
11. gild, disguise. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.
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Examples from the Web for varnish
Historical Examples
  • When the varnish is removed with spirits of turpentine, the engraving is seen in sunken lines on the plate.

    Paper and Printing Recipes J. Sawtelle Ford
  • It is used in the manufacture of varnish, sealing-wax, and soap.

    Commercial Geography Jacques W. Redway
  • Everything looked as if covered with varnish: the green and yellow colors became brighter; the black became blacker.

    The Awakening Leo Nikoleyevich Tolstoy
  • That is why Jennie gripped her seat until she must have scratched the varnish.

    The Brown Mouse Herbert Quick
  • The varnish which has failed to give me satisfaction may be most suitable for other parts of the Union.

  • Several coats of shellac or of varnish might be put on instead of wax.

    Mission Furniture H. H. Windsor
  • He hoped by cunning to varnish over his want of faith and of ability.

  • His varnish may be described as deep golden, of good quality.

    The Violin George Hart
  • Mr. Warr was here, under solemn articles not once to varnish the work of art until the run of the piece was over.

    Despair's Last Journey David Christie Murray
  • The varnish is hard, and distinct from that associated with Cremonese instruments.

    The Violin George Hart
British Dictionary definitions for varnish


Also called oil varnish. a preparation consisting of a solvent, a drying oil, and usually resin, rubber, bitumen, etc, for application to a surface where it polymerizes to yield a hard glossy, usually transparent, coating
a similar preparation consisting of a substance, such as shellac or cellulose ester, dissolved in a volatile solvent, such as alcohol. It hardens to a film on evaporation of the solvent See also spirit varnish
Also called natural varnish. the sap of certain trees used to produce such a coating
a smooth surface, coated with or as with varnish
an artificial, superficial, or deceptively pleasing manner, covering, etc; veneer
(mainly Brit) another word for nail polish
verb (transitive)
to cover with varnish
to give a smooth surface to, as if by painting with varnish
to impart a more attractive appearance to
to make superficially attractive
Derived Forms
varnisher, noun
Word Origin
C14: from Old French vernis, from Medieval Latin veronix sandarac, resin, from Medieval Greek berenikē, perhaps from Greek Berenikē, city in Cyrenaica, Libya where varnishes were used
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for varnish

mid-14c., from Old French vernis "varnish" (12c.), from Medieval Latin vernix "odorous resin," perhaps from Late Greek verenike, from Greek Berenike, name of an ancient city in Libya (modern Bengasi) credited with the first use of varnishes. The town is named for Berenike II, queen of Egypt (see Berenice). Figurative sense of "specious gloss, pretense," is recorded from 1560s.


late 14c.; see varnish (n.). Related: Varnished; varnishing.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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