Wimps and scaredy-cats: talking about people who are not brave

Listen to the author reading this blog post:

a small white cat with black and orange markings on its ears and tail looking frightened by something off-camera
Brian Farrell / Moment Open / GettyImages

by Liz Walter

My last post was on the topic of bravery, so by way of a contrast, this one looks at words and phrases connected with the opposite. The most common word for someone who isn’t brave is coward. The related adjective is cowardly (one of those rare adjectives that ends in -ly) and the noun is cowardice:

Only a coward would end a relationship by text.

He was too cowardly to criticize his boss.

Their failure to deal with the issue was political cowardice.

The adjective timid describes someone who is rather shy and unconfident. Fainthearted is similar but rather a literary word, except when it is used in the phrase ‘not for the fainthearted’:

She was a timid woman, completely unsuited to being a journalist.

Our trips to the Himalayas aren’t for the fainthearted.

Spineless is a much more pejorative word, used for people who are weak and lack the determination to do things they should do. Pusillanimous is a formal word with a similar meaning:

Stop being so spineless and make them leave!

The book was withdrawn by her pusillanimous publisher.

If someone is generally shy or scared to do things, we might say that they are afraid of their own shadow. The word ‘afraid’ can be replaced by synonyms such as scared or frightened in this phrase. Similarly, Americans say that someone is afraid to say boo, while British people say that they wouldn’t say boo to a goose:

That child needs to toughen up – she’s afraid of her own shadow.

Even my aunt, who normally wouldn’t say boo to a goose, started shouting at him.

If someone is shaking because they are scared, we can say that they tremble or quake with fear. An emphatic way of saying this is shake like a leaf:

I saw that he had a gun and started to tremble.

We walked into the cave, quaking with fear.

She was shaking like a leaf before she went on stage.

There are lots of insults for people we think are being cowards. For example, we might accuse them of being a wimp or a chicken. We also use the verbs wimp out and chicken out when we disapprove of someone failing to do something because they were scared:

Come on, you chicken, jump!

Dad wimped out of the abseiling.

Scaredy-cat is a more childish or humorous insult, while we might call someone a baby if we think their fear is childish. More colourfully, in British, but not American English, we sometimes use the humorous insult a big/great girl’s blouse:

She’s such a scaredy-cat – she won’t even go on the ferris wheel.

Stop being such a baby. The dogs won’t hurt you.

Get up that ladder, you big girl’s blouse!

Are cats and chickens considered cowardly in your language too?

8 thoughts on “Wimps and scaredy-cats: talking about people who are not brave

  1. Cats are brave and curious. Scaredy-cat should be as obsolete as “not enough space to swing a cat” – horrible vernacular clichés that are outdated can safely be dropped from contemporary usage.

    1. Leszek

      Actually, the cat in the expression you mention refers not to the animal but to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made of nine knotted cords or thongs used formerly for flogging prisoners.

    2. Steve

      Cats are clever. It is true that they are curious. But how many cats approach you in the park? Approach a strange dog and you are covered in hair and drool; approach a strange cat and they tend to back off. I would say they are wary and cautious (smart.) Cautious cat has an alliteration that might help it’s adoption.
      However, the phrase “scaredy cat” is applied to people, who back off in situations where it is assumed they are mimicking a cat’s behavior because they are scared. Perfect.

  2. Leszek

    In the expression ‘there’s not enough room to swing a cat’ the word cat refers not to the purring feline but to a type of whip with nine cords or thongs used formerly for flogging prisoners.

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