In a Word: Coward, a Tale of the Tail

Discover the animal origins of cowardice and its link to medieval literature.

Photo os a red fox with his eyes closed as a butterfly lands on his nose.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

When we speak of someone retreating in cowardice, we might say they “turned tail and ran,” or maybe that they ran off “with their tail between their legs.” As it happens, the link between tails and cowardice isn’t only metaphorical — it’s etymological. The word coward traces back to the Latin cauda, meaning “tail.” This became the Old French word for “tail,” coue.

Whether from the idea of a frightened animal running away with its tail between its legs or a frightened soldier working his way to the tail end of a marching army, the tail was associated with the chicken-hearted. So to the end of coue was added the Old French derogatory ending rendered either -ard or -art (as in braggart, buzzard, and probably bastard) to create a new name for the yellow-bellied.

The Old French coart (or cuart) came to England in the 13th century, where it became cuard or couard and, eventually, coward.

Coart was also the name of a particularly lily-livered character in medieval literature. The stories of Reynard the Fox were told, in various languages, all across Europe during the Middle Ages. The allegorical (and sometimes satirical) tales of this trickster weren’t written by a single author. Like with the legends of Greek and Roman mythology, various writers pulled from a central understanding of the characters and their backgrounds to craft their own stories for their own purposes.

In the Old French versions of these Reynard tales we find a rather skittish hare named Coart. (In other versions, his name is Kyward or Cuwaert.) Coart was ultimately slain and eaten by Reynard, and his head delivered to the king — these weren’t happy-go-lucky children’s stories.

But they were popular, and that popularity helped solidify this early form of coward into the French language. The tales of Reynard the Fox were so widely known, in fact, that the word renard ultimately replaced the Old French word for “fox,” goupil (from the Latin vulpecula).

 

Featured image: Giedriius / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. A whale of a tale of the tail on how ‘coward’ eventually came to be. I feel bad though for the genuinely frightened per paragraph 2 here, animal or human. If either is in a dangerous situation and wishes to avert tragedy, they’re not cowards.

    No, coward (in the modern sense) would best be applied to politicians sadistically tormenting the American people to no end, then recoil in horror at the idea of having to look at what they’ve done and face their victims. Yes. They are the very dictionary pictures of traitorous cowards.

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