Word History: 11 Craven Words for Cowards

As  Writer and Historian, I have always been interested in etymology, especially regarding the subject of military history and warfare in general. If you guys have any interesting tidbits or interesting words regarding this subject, shoot me a comment. -SF

some white feathers on a black

From the time we’re little children, we’re taught the virtues of bravery, though not always in a positive way. Kids love to taunt each other with language like “You’re yellow!” and “You’re a chicken!” As adults, we lambaste politicians for lacking the courage of their convictions. But the concept of cowardice is an old one, and there are many now-obscure words for, as Yosemite Sam might put it, lowdown yellow-bellies.


You’ve probably heard a coward referred to as lily-livered. This term shares the same concept: If your liver is white, it lacks the respectable red color of blood, and therefore belongs to a coward. White liver has been around since at least 1614, but the adjective white-livered is a little older, showing the eternal appeal of hyphenated insults. A white liver can also be a flatterer.


This term has no relation to white liver, but arises from the symbolic meaning of a white feather: surrender. If you “show the white feather” or “have a white feather in your tail,” you’re yella. From those uses in the late 1700s on, this became a rare synonym for coward. There’s also an amusing variation: whitefeatherism, as seen in a 1909 issue of The Leather Worker’s Journal: “It is a good answer, for it is as full of determination as theirs is of weak-kneed white featherism.”


This rare term, adopted and adapted from Dutch in the 1600s, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “One who befouls his breeches.”  That’s a sure sign of cowardice in any era.


Though dastardly is still a common word, at least when describing villains, you don’t seedastard much anymore. The word has a long, if not proud, history: The first uses, back in the 1400s, are synonymous with dullard before the word takes on the odor of cowardice and downright diabolical devilry.


These days, cringe is associated with comedy that’s overly awkward—like The Office—but cringing has long signified a lack of testicular fortitude. Since at least the late 1700s, acringeling has been someone who lacks courage (or just likes to suck up to superiors). In his 1899 book The Teacher and His Work, Samuel Findley made an eternally true observation: “What cringelings most men are, and how admirable is true courage.”

Read the Remainder at Mental Floss


6 thoughts on “Word History: 11 Craven Words for Cowards

  1. White Shoe: High and Lofty. Will not get dirty (getting dirty, is part of the job). Will not pull their share of burden/weight. More interested in bookworming than trigger-time.

  2. How about…

    Once knuckle meant any joint, including the knee. To knuckle under meant to kneel in submission.

    In an emergency rather than haul up an anchor the sailors would cut the anchor cable then run with the wind.

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