, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Medieval illumination of a dog, 14th century, from a Codex in the Czech Republic. Note the tail, ‘no coward soul’ is this dog.

We are currently exploring the binary opposition in The Odyssey and other hero myths. This is part of the structuralist theory of meaning whereby we understand more through exploring the difference between the word and its opposite meaning, so exploring a relationship between things rather than fixed solitary meaning. Usually one side of the pair of elements is more culturally ‘privileged’  or valued than the other. These oppositions, challenge the way we read texts and open up our thinking as the valued element of the pair is identified. Students have identified several binary oppositions in The Odyssey which they are exploring in connection to the other hero myths they are reading. We see: heroes and monsters, greed – selflessness, male – female, loyalty- betrayal, exclusion- inclusion, courage-cowardice, retribution-forgiveness. We have begun to notice as we consider the binary opposition of the masculine and feminine in The Odyssey and the myths of Theseus and Perseus, that the females are either passive, loyal, patient and enduring – the ideal woman, or monsters and temptresses. This suggests that women who break the constraints of passivity are treacherous and dangerous, malevolent beguilers and deceivers.

To understand ‘courage’, it’s clarifying to note the difference of its opposite concept of ‘cowardice’. So determining the morphemes, identifying the root and its meaning add a  nuanced understanding of the word rather than just regurgitating the dictionary denotation. Here students are examining the word cowardice. Listen and watch here:




You’ll note my excitement and total misreading of the dates the words ‘coward’ and ‘cowardice’ entered English. I was somewhat intrigued, erroneously, in thinking that ‘cowardice’ had occurred before the appearance in English of the word ‘coward’ and shared his with students to discover that I had rushed in, blundering enthusiastically around in the etymological waters.  It’s important to read carefully and thoughtfully! Always a good lesson for impetuous me as well as the students!

The denotation of coward:

A reproachful designation for one who displays ignoble fear or want of courage in the face of danger, pain, or difficulty; an ignobly faint-hearted or pusillanimous person.

The word ‘coward’ comes from the Latin root cauda meaning tail.Read the etymology here.

Intriguingly, according to OED, ‘coward’ was also applied to animals:

Ԡa. An old appellation of the hare

†b. A cock which will not fight. Obs.

c. a horse without spirit in a race.

2. Heraldry. Said of a lion or other beast borne as a charge: Having the tail drawn in between the legs’

This investigation, as seen in the video clips, raises the thorny issue of how far to analyze. I am an overly enthusiastic pruner of a word’s morphemes and spot suffixes everywhere. However, in terms of finding related words in present day English (PDE), words that share the same base element and thus ultimately the same root , any other related words add suffixes onto the stem ‘coward’: cowardly, cowardness, cowardy, cowardliness.I have not, as yet, found ways of building onto this without the suffix <-ard.>

And while I could create a link in meaning between ‘to cow‘(v) as in ‘To depress with fear’ (Johnson); to dispirit, overawe, intimidate.'(OED)… that was me in excited folk etymologizing mode as I visualized the tail between legs of a cowering dog. So in in order to emphasize the separateness of the roots, perhaps it is better to suggest that the ‘cow’ element is no longer productive.

And yet the suffix <-ard> is fascinating and I have to say I love seeing it in the matrix in its own compartment as it draws attention to itself and asserts that it too has a story, a fascinating etymology and interesting associations and cohorts.

The suffix <-ard>

Often this suffix <-ard> is negative. In Dutch and Middle High German it was pejorative and this negative aspect is seen in many words in English, drunkard, blaffard, bastard, dullard, sluggard, dottard. According to OED the suffix <-ard>:

‘ appeared in Middle English in words from Old French, asbastard, coward, mallard, wizard, also in names of things, as placard, standard (flag); and became at length a living formative of English derivatives, as in buzzard, drunkard, laggard, sluggard, with sense of ‘one who does to excess, or who does what is discreditable.’ In some words it has taken the place of an earlier -ar, -er of the simple agent, as in bragger, braggar, braggard,stander, standard (tree). In some it is now written -art, asbraggart; in cockade, orig. cockard, corrupted to -ade suffix.’

The OED notes that this suffix was ‘used in French as masculine formative, intensive, augmentative, and often pejorative, compare bastard, couard,canard, mallard, mouchard, vieillard.’

In an entertaining article by Casselman, he notes that ‘In Old French this usually negative suffix –ard was extremely productive’ .

Look at the etymology behind the following words.

buzzard: from O.Fr. , the <-art > changing in English to <-ard> with denotation of inferiority: buzzard being a ‘harrier or inferior hawk’.!

 bayard: a mock heroic name for a horse

boinard: an Obselete word meaning: ‘A fool, simpleton; rogue, scoundrel.’

What about blinkard: a ‘mocking term for someone with poor eyesight’ or the obsolete crusard or croissiard, a pejorative term for crusaders and then there’s bugiard a liar!!

Go to Casselman’s site to discover wonderful words such as dizzard, and babbilard. Most interesting of all the idea that ‘Spaniard’ and ‘Lombard’ too were once coined as insults.

I therefore, despite conversations with my students to the contrary, now propose the matrix below to represent ‘coward’ in order to recognize the nuances brought to the word through the humble but frequently negative suffix<-ard>:

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 5.31.12 PM

And while this is a modest collection of related words to the bound base ‘cow’, the negativity is intensified when when combined with the suffix<-ard> and its etymology explored. Perhaps now the reference to dogs in the image will begin to take on more meaning.

Tales of tails and dogs

Edward Reed 1860-1933) was a Punch Magazine contributor from 1889 until his death, despite retiring as parliamentary caricaturist in 1912. Go to Tails with a Twist” where you can read the poems.

There are  several tail expressions that indicate cowardice or depression: to turn tail an image from the 16th century. Cresswell suggests this comes from the way many ‘prey animals used their raised their tails as warning signals when in flight’. Someone who appears dejected or depressed has their ‘tail between their legs’  which has been in use since the Middle ages. However, when in the opposite emotional state, people are described ‘with their tail up’ to indicate their buoyancy and confidence. Cresswell also notes the expression ‘the tail is wagging the dog’ which came from the verbal sense in the early 16th century to fasten to the back of something and ultimately leading to the 20th century sense of to follow closely.

Latin ‘cauda’ too led to other base elements: check coda, caudal, and queue.

And what of dogs, the image that sparked tails between legs and cowardice? This too, like every word, is fascinating. Read how dog from rare late OE word docga  referred specifically to a powerful breed of canines pushing the older hound OE hund  to narrow in meaning to a dog for hunting.

Then there are so many negative expressions connected with dogs. OED lexicographer Christine A. Lindberg informs us that: ‘the word dog all by itself has generated a number of negative figurative uses, at least six times more than the lowly rat!’ I discovered:




doggerel: bad poetry

dog’s life

in the dog house

dog to refer to an ugly woman


bitch: As early as the 1400’s this was a contemptuous term for a woman and used verbally as in to bungle and spoil from 1823.


dog and pony show

dog eat dog : indicates fierce competition and reverses the 16th century proverb of ‘dog does not eat dog’ and earlier Latin’ canis caninam non est’: a dog does not eat dog’s flesh. (Cresswell,Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins)

dog in the manger: from Aesop’s fable

throw someone to the dogs,and not a dog’s chance

a dog’s dinner: for a poor piece of work or a mess

sick as a dog

According to Cresswell, the positive change in status for dog expressions is seen in the phrase from the Victorian era  “man’s best friend” and later expression”love me, love my dog”. I know you have been wondering … what do dogs, hogs, pigs and  earwigs have in common? Read this interesting and informative post on all things dog here by Bernadette Paton of the OED from The Oxford Word Blog.

 Mythological tail waggers:

Some of the students know of the dogs of Norse mythology, none of them cowardly, none ever seen with tails between their legs! Fenrir,monstrous child of Loki and the giantess Angrboda bound by a magical chain that will be broken on the day of Ragnarok where he will ‘join the giants in their battle against the gods … seek out Odin and devour him.Vidar, Odin’s son, will avenge his father by killing the wolf’. Some know too of four eyed Garm, with blood drenched, guardian of Helheim, the Norse realm of the dead.

We too have come across Garm’s Greek counterpart Cerebus , three headed, serpent tailed guardian of Hades, know of Aura (Breeze) Atlanta’s dog and of Actaeon’s hounds. Unfortunate Actaeon, hunter, stumbling across naked Artemis bathing in a stream, was transformed into a stag so that the hunter became the hunted and was torn to pieces by his thirty- six dogs. Thanks to Ovid we know the names of of his dogs: some being Tigris, Laelaps (Storm), Aello (Whirlwind), and Arcas (Bear). Read more of the naming of the Ancient Greek conventions of naming dogs in Adrienne Mayor’s  informative article Names of Dogs in Ancient Greece.

The Smithsonian curators tell us of popular medieval dog names such as ‘Sturdy, Whitefoot, Hardy, Jakke, Bo, Terri, Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast.’ Read more here at Smithsonian.

No more mad ramblings and no, despite the tropical climes I inhabit, I have not been wandering in the midday sun … yes, a heavy handed segue to the great Coward himself, Noel, singing Mad Dogs and Englishmen.