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On cowards and custard from a strictly linguistic point of view by the Oxford Etymologist for the OUP blog

On cowards and custard from a strictly linguistic point of view

It is curious what a multitude of synonyms for “brave” Modern English has (bold, courageous, valiant, fearless, and at least a dozen more), while coward ~ cowardly have practically none. For coward only a few rather unexciting nouns like poltroon and dastard turn up, and for the related adjective we chiefly find compounds like chicken-hearted and faint-hearted. It appears that language endows courage with many shades, while cowardice has only one hue. Such picturesque metaphors as scaredy-cat and milksop don’t count.

The origin of coward is known, and I’ll say nothing about it that cannot be found elsewhere, but the story will take us to other, more interesting words. The strangest thing is that coward, a single common name in English for a person lacking fortitude, is a borrowing from Old French. Where, we would like to know, is the Germanic coward lurking? We’ll discover that ignoble person later but will first note that people seem to have resented this lack of native, grassroots diffidence and mobilized folk etymology to fill the gap. Time and again, coward has been explained as an alteration of cowherd. Why should cowherds be or have been prototypical cowards? The silliness of this derivation did not bother its proponents. Folk etymology seeks an easy explanation rather than logic. The same approach to word origins connected coward with the verb cower, but neither cower nor incidentally, the verb cow has anything to do with coward, even if cower may have reinforced the meaning of our noun.

A cowherd is not a coward!
Photo by WBRA Jen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The source of coward is Old French couard, ultimately, from Latin coda “tail.” In the immensely popular and beautiful poem Reynard, The Fox, translated into Middle English from Old Flemish by the great William Caxton (1415-1490), the hare is called Cuwaert and Kywart. Perhaps the original allusion was to a frightened dog with its tail between its legs. It has also been noted that in heraldry, a lion with its tail between its legs, called couard in Old French, has the deprecatory suffix –ard and means “having a short, drooping, or otherwise ridiculous tail.” The reference to the tail is sometimes called obscure, but on the whole, the existing explanation is not bad. As for the suffix, which we can see even in the name Reynard, it also occurs (among others) in drunkard, dotard, sluggard, and the already mentioned dastard.

Now back to the Germanic coward. We find him in German and Scandinavian: German feige and Dutch veeg mean “cowardly,” while Old Icelandic feigr means “doomed, fated, destined to die.” In Modern Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish, the cognates of feigr mean “fearful; unusual; crazy,” but this change happened under the influence of German. The sense in Old Icelandic is the original one. In German, the transition from “doomed” to “cowardly” went through several stages, one of which was “hated.” The distant origin of our word is unclear and need not bother us. I should only note that the most usual Indo-European root cited in this connection looks unconvincing. The development must have been from “doomed to die” to “afraid of death.” Perhaps one of the intermediate stages was “ready to die.” In some southern German dialects, the related adjective means “almost ripe” and “rotten.” The most ancient root may have had that meaning, as suggested long ago but dismissed by later scholarship without discussion. And this brings us to English fey “fated to die,” an exact cognate of German feig(e), Dutch veeg, and Old Icelandic feigr, now and for many centuries, chiefly Scottish. Such is one of the verbal sources of Germanic fear.

This is Reynard.
Image by Ernest Henri Griset, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Yet it is not the only one. German Angst “fear” has made its way into English dictionaries, along with the untranslatable Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude. The word, whose specific meaning goes back to Freud, is at least a century old in English, but it still exists only as a synonym for “anxiety.” Itis related to German eng “narrow” and a host of words outside Germanic. When you find yourself in a narrow spot, you experience anxiety, you are afraid. This etymology highlights the development of abstract concepts from concrete ones, about which more will be said below. Here we will only note that the root of Angst can also be seen in anger, anguish, angina, anxious, agnail (!), and so forth. The related words in Greek and Latin sound almost like those in Germanic, and we recognize their English offspring without any trouble.

Fear is also a Germanic word. Its Old English source meant “sudden calamity; danger.” Its cognate in Old Saxon (another West Germanic language) turned up with the sense “ambush.” By contrast, “danger” is the only meaning of Modern German Gefahr and Dutch gevaar. Our knowledge of the subtler meanings of words in the oldest texts is imperfect, because we depend on a limited number of contexts and on occasional, often untrustworthy Latin glosses. Even though such a rigorous semantic law does not exist, it makes sense to assume that abstract senses tend to be derived from more concrete ones. In our case, “ambush” (a source of fear) may have developed into “danger” and “fear.” Yet our material is too scanty for bold generalizations. Though great perils awaited a traveler (ambushes, highwaymen, inhospitable terrain), English fare and its numerous congeners, including German fahren, are not related to fear, because the noun fear had a long vowel in the root, while the vowel in fare and the rest was short. Such niceties did not bother our oldest scholars, but all modern etymological research depends on them.

Here then is a short summary of what we have found. Cowards, those mean-spirited, pusillanimous people who treasured their lives more than the common good, have always existed, but the oldest Germanic words for the lack of bravery seem to derive from the ideas of being fated (doomed, destined) to die. When French words for the spiritual sphere flooded Middle English, the native nouns designating the lack of courage were lost, and coward, a loan from Old French, replaced them. However, fear, an old word, survived, though its original meaning was more concrete, namely, “calamity” or perhaps “accident.” German Angst preserves its status of a foreignism in English, but fear is native and thus makes amends for the imported word coward.

Custard, a repast for the timid.
Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

For dessert, I would like to quote the phrase cowardly, cowardly, custard, an alliterative taunt used by boys and reported in 1872 in the biweekly Notes and Queries by a correspondent from Philadelphia. He wrote: “It is supposed to have its origin in the shaking, quivering motion of the confection called ‘custard’. In Microcosmos (1687) [by Johann Martini], Act iii, Tasting says “I have a sort of cowardly custards, born in the city, but bred up at court, that quake foe fear.” The date of the OED’s earliest citation of the phrase is 1833. The explanation given in 1872 seems to be correct: a quivering heart has always been associated with cowardice. In an Old Icelandic poem from the Elder Edda, one of the heroes sees a heart, allegedly cut out of the breast of his brother, but gives the messenger the lie: the heart is quivering. And indeed, the heart belongs to a cook. Then they kill the brother, whose heart looks right! My questions is obvious: Does any of our readers know the taunt? If so, where is it still used?

Featured image: “Two Jack Russell terriers chasing a rabbit into a burrow”, Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Recent Comments


    It has also been noted that in heraldry, a lion with its tail between its legs, called couard in Old French, has the depreciating suffix –ard and means “having a short, drooping, or otherwise ridiculous tail.”

    I think you mean ‘deprecatory’, not ‘depreciating’.

    At my preparatory (=private) school 1957-60, the sung rhyme “Cowardy cowardy custard” (not “cowardly” on this occasion) was sometimes used.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Though cowards were sometimes called lily-livered and yellow bellies.

  3. Gavin Wraith

    When I was little the cry was ‘cowardy, cowardy custard’. Perhaps ‘custard’ was ‘goose-turd’, an ill greenish pallor, that describes the coward’s shocked appearance.

  4. Nicholas Staite

    Growing up in Gloucester, England, in the 50s and 60s, I was familiar with ‘cowardy, cowardy custard’ (‘your face is made of mustard!’)

  5. Stephen Goranson

    This reminds me of an essay by one of my teachers, Philip Rahv, “Paleface and Redskin,” Kenyan Review 1 (1939) 251-256.

  6. OUPblog team

    N M G MIDDLEMISS – thank you for your note re. deprecatory/depreciating. We have now updated the blog post. With kindest regards, the OUPblog team.

  7. Karl Michalski

    I’ts very interesting to see how spoken language is changing over the time.

  8. Mark Niemann

    Thanks for the post, interesting to read, even if I don’t agree to all points mentioned.

  9. Fred de Vries

    In modern Dutch ‘coward’ means ‘lafaard’. ‘Laf’ is both ‘weak’ and ‘loose’, but also ‘without enough salt’. ‘-aard’ means ‘nature’.

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