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I WAS AT a loss for words while I listened to Senator Mitch McConnell and other Republicans during this past week’s impeachment hearings. But then three words came to mind: pusillanimous, craven, and dastardly. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, interspersed with examples, are etymologies of these three words, all related to the word “cowardly.”
Other Synonyms. Our language has an abundance of words to describe less than courageous performance, be it by Republicans or anyone else: Merriam-Webster offers 14 synonyms for “cowardly,” including “chicken-livered, milk-livered, spineless, and poltroon.”
M-W notes that milk-livered is archaic. I’ve already discussed what appears to have been short-lived spined behavior of Republican leaders following January 6.
I recall a good story concerning “poltroon.” Auto designer/journalist colleague Robert Cumberford once told me that, upon joining a Turin design staff, he taught himself the Italian equivalent of “What have you poltroons done to my beautiful design!” In Old Italian, the word poltrone means “coward.” It’s related to the English word “poultry,” hence “chicken-livered.”
Pusillanimous = Timidly. Merriam-Webster defines “pusillanimous” as “lacking courage and resolution: marked by contemptible timidity.” It cites “Latin roots of this derisive adjective are pusillus, meaning ‘very small’ (and related to pusus, meaning ‘boy’) and animus, which means ‘spirit’ and is the ancestor to many words in our language, including ‘animal’ and ‘animate.’ ”
Though the English word has been around since the 16th century, we can thank Richard Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew for coining the term “pusillanimous pussyfooting.”
Alliterative though this is, Agnew’s wording smacks of redundancy. Wouldn’t “pussyfooting” imply “timidity”?
An Entertaining Political Sidetrip. Agnew had been a kickback artist in Maryland construction projects, even while serving as Nixon’s V.P. When caught, as noted by Wikipedia, “Agnew took the position that a sitting vice president could not be indicted.”
Sound familiar? Were you listening, Mitch?
In October 1973, Agnew eventually plead nolo contendere (no contest), was fined 10 Large, (that’s mob talk for $10,000), got three years of (unsupervised) probation, and handed a resignation letter to Nixon. It’s not clear how these four actions were interrelated.
According to Wikipedia, Nixon applauded Agnew “for his patriotism and dedication to the welfare of the United States.” Was this the first time “patriotism” became a dog whistle? Succeeding Agnew as V.P., Gerald Ford recalled that “his first reaction was disbelief, his second sadness.”
Don’t worry about Agnew: He borrowed 200 Large from pal Frank Sinatra, set up an international consultancy, and, among other business, supplied uniforms to Saddam Hussein.
Are you taking notes, Donald?
Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll focus on the January 6 insurrection, Trump’s second impeachment, and craven, dastardly, and pusillanimous behavior. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021