cold feet A feeling of fear or uncertainty; a loss of confidence or nerve; cowardice; usually to get or have cold feet. This expression, in popular use since at least 1893, is said to have come from Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, produced in London in 1605.
lily-livered Cowardly, pusillanimous, craven. This expression is a variation of white livered, lily ‘pure white’ serving to emphasize the color. According to ancient Roman and Greek custom, an animal was sacrificed before each major battle. If the animal’s liver was red and healthy-looking, it was considered a good omen; if the liver was pale or white, it portended defeat. This tradition was based on the belief that the liver was the seat of love and virile passions such as bravery and courage. It was further believed that the liver of a poltroon contained no blood, either through a prenatal fluke of nature or more often as the result of a cowardly act.
For Andrew, if he were opened, and you find so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea, I’II eat the rest of the anatomy. (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night III, ii)
show the white feather To act in a cowardly, craven, dastardly fashion; to lack courage; to be fearful in the face of danger. This expression alludes to the gamecocks used in the sport of cock-fighting. A purebred gamecock has only red and black feathers, while a crossbreed, usually a poor fighter in the pit, often has white feathers in its tail. Though these white feathers are usually covered by the colored ones, when one of these inferior hybrids knows its defeat is imminent, its tail droops, clearly showing the white feathers.
No one will defend him who shows the white feather. (Sir Walter Scott, Journal, 1829)
turn turtle See VULNERABILITY.
weak sister A person (male or female) who is unreliable or timorous, especially during emergencies; a group member whose support cannot be counted on under pressure or in a crisis.
There is always a weak sister who turns yellow or overplays his game through nervousness. (Saturday Evening Post, October, 1925)
yellow belly A coward, a craven. Yellow has been a common American colloquialism for ‘cowardly’ since the mid-19th century. Yellow-bellied followed, a coinage perhaps due to the initial rhyming sounds. Both are still more frequently heard than the noun yellow belly. Reasons for the long association of the color yellow with cowardliness are unknown; they may simply lie in its connotations of sickliness and consequent lack of force and vigor.
Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary, 1st Edition. © 1980 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.