For my Truly Colorful Idioms post, I looked at the origins of words and phrases which included color in them. Among those was “yellow-belly” – a term meaning coward. Writer Catie Rhodes commented that she wondered where we got the words “sissy” and “nancy” in reference to cowardly or weak people. What a great post idea!
So for today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, please step in between the hedges and let’s go hunt down 6 different ways to say, “You spineless weakling!”
Sissy. Sissy is a familiar term for a sister. I still hear it in the south from time to time (no idea about other regions). In 1887, “sissy” was applied to an effeminate man: “Look and walk too much like sissies to do much fightin’.” (The Lantern, August 27, 1887) – Oxford English Dictionary. This follows the usual strategy of insulting a guy by calling him a girl.
Nancy. There are a few theories here. First, Miss Nancy was an adjective in the 19th century meaning effeminate. It may have come from the early 18th century actress Miss Anne Oldfield (Nancy is a nickname for Anne). Miss Oldfield used her dramatic skills and feminine wiles to sustain a highly successful acting career.
Second, Nancy Dawson was a famous 18th century prostitute about whom the sailors wrote a song that went something like this:
Of all the girls in our town
The red, the black, the fair, the brown
That dance and prance it up and down
There’s none like Nancy Dawson.
Third, the word “nancy” also referred to one’s posterior.
By 1958, one or more of these got applied as “nancy boy” to an effeminate homosexual male. The reference appears in British author Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar: “All he said with sudden petulance was ‘I can’t stand that Toto fellow. He’s an open nancy-boy.'” It is now typically shortened to simply “nancy” to refer to a weak male who may be considered effeminate.
Wimp. Some claim that “wimp” derived from the character J. Wellington Wimpy in the Popeye comic strip, who was known for his timidity and whining. However, the word was used in 1920 in George Ade’s Handmade Fables: “Next day he sought out the dejected Wimp who was hungering for the Eastern Hemisphere” and used several other times in that decade. Meanwhile, Popeye made his first appearance in 1929 and didn’t gain ground until the 1930s. The word “wimp” likely derived from “whimper” – which is what one would assume a coward or weakling does in the face of danger.
Wuss. Well, this is what I get for never having seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). I had no idea where this word came from. Apparently, “wuss” was a term spoken by character Mike Damone in the movie: “You are a wuss: part wimp, and part pussy.” (For the record, I hate that p word.)
Lily Liver. A healthy liver is a dark reddish-brown. The ancient Greeks used to sacrifice an animal the night before a battle; if the animal’s liver was red and full of blood, they considered that a good omen; if it was pale and lily-colored, that was an indication of bad things to come. Likewise, they figured that a coward had a pale liver too. In fact, in the Middle Ages, it appears that some believed the liver to be the seat of courage or passion. The idea of a “lily liver” was popularized by Shakespeare in Macbeth (1605): “Go prick thy face and over-red thy fear, thou lily-livered boy.” (Shakespeare also wrote in The Merchant of Venice: “How many cowards . . . have livers as white as milk.”)
Pansy. First used in 1929, “pansy” refers to a homosexual man. I did not find a definitive source, but it appears that D.H. Lawrence’s poetry collection titled Pansies was the origin of this word. Some of the poems referred to homosexual feelings and acts, and the collection was purged by the publisher of its most controversial material. Some suggest that Lawrence used the word “pansies” from the French word “panser” which means to bandage or bind up; others that he used the Middle English “pancy” from the French “pensee” which means a thought or remembrance. He may have intended a double-meaning. The word “pansy,” however, got a lot of use in the Pansy Craze of the 1920s and 1930s in which gay stage performers had an underground popularity surge.
The usage I’m more familiar with is perhaps best displayed with a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
“Come on, ya pansy!” – Black Knight
So what other slang words do you know that mean weak or cowardly? (Why do you think they are so often applied to men?) Why do we come up with so many ways to insult others?
Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary; Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack; Shakespeare’s Words, Word Wizard; godfreydykes.info; Centretruths Digital Literature; Dissertation by Christine Courtland Mather; Word Detective; Indiana University Authors; Wikipedia (I double-check information from this site); Word Origins Discussion Forum; Online Encyclopedia