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PUSILLANIMOUS, CRAVEN, DASTARDLY: ETYMOLOGIES, WITH EXAMPLES   PART 1

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.

A Prince and a Poltroon, 1789. These fancified duelers utter “coward” and “dastard.” The fellow at right says,  “Would that I had not meddled in the business or that I would get over to the other side.” Image from allposters.com.

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”?

Spiro Theodore Agnew, 1918–1996, 39th vice president of the United States, Governor of Maryland 1967-1969, spinner of words and deals.

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. 

Richard Milhous Nixon, 1913–1994, 37th president of the United States, inspired John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, resigned August 9, 1974, “for the good of the country” in face of impeachment.

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 

5 comments on “PUSILLANIMOUS, CRAVEN, DASTARDLY: ETYMOLOGIES, WITH EXAMPLES   PART 1

  1. Bill Rabel
    February 16, 2021

    Agnew will be forever known for “Nattering nabobs of negativity”. The man had a way with alliteration.

  2. Grey McGown
    February 16, 2021

    Denis…why irritate half your audience with anti
    GOP crap, even tho it’s well phrased? Grey McGown Fort Worth.

    • simanaitissays
      February 16, 2021

      Grey,
      Thanks for the “well phrased” comment. I disagree strongly about it’s being anti-GOP “crap.” What is irritating about the truth?

  3. Jack Mason
    February 17, 2021

    Precisely. Why not address the batshit elephant in the room?

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