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.
1. WHITE LIVER
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.
2. WHITE FEATHER
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 see dastard 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, a cringeling 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.”
Around since the 1400s, this word has a non-derogatory meaning as someone who is bed-ridden, and it has a super-derogatory meaning as someone who’s lying down on the job when he should be on his feet fighting. This would make a superb synonym for couch potato.
This rare Scottish word for a coward deserves a richer life than it's enjoyed: fazart only turns up a few times in the 1500s. The OED can’t confirm its etymology, but passes on this juicy bit of lexical gossip: “…according to [Scottish lexicographer John] Jamieson faizard is used in some parts for a hermaphrodite fowl.” So it’s possible the lexicon of insults once again owes a debt to the barnyard.
8. PUDDING HEART
This term can be taken two ways. It can mean you have a warm, soft, possibly delicious heart—therefore, you’re a good person. Or it can mean your heart is pure mush and therefore not to be trusted when tested. An 1834 use by playwright Henry Taylor likely qualifies as fightin’ words: “Go, pudding-heart! Take thy huge offal and white liver hence.”
Dunghill has a surprisingly versatile repertoire when it comes to calling cowardice. You can call a figurative chicken a dunghill, but you can also die dunghill. The expression comes from the dunghill-cock, which is treated, understandably, with less reverence than the game-cock. William Toldervy, in 1756, demonstrated the disgrace denoted by the term: “Submit, be a wretch, and die dunghill.”
This Scottish word’s etymology hardly requires explanation, though in addition to being a variation of fear, it appears related to fraidy cat. First popping up in the 1920s, you can still find fearties discussed today, at least in Scotland. Scottish political writer Andrew Tickell recently wrote, “Very soon, the SNP (Scottish National Party) will have to decide whether they are a proper social democratic party, or a nest of fearties.”
This term isn’t used often as a noun, though it did pop up back in the 1440s. It’s much easier to find the adjective hen-hearted. There’s also an adverbial use that would make Colonel Sanders cry (or maybe drool): hen-heartedly, which popped up in 1799’s amazingly named A Plum Pudding for Humane, Chaste, Valiant, Enlightened Peter Porcupine, who one would hope did not have a plum pudding heart.