Surely Women Can Be Cowards, Too…Right?

Language has history embedded into it.  Take for example, the concept of the coward.  The word has many synonyms in English, some of them implying villainy and others implying miserableness, but what it does not have is a synonym with the concept of woman built into it. 

There are a few scattered terms that would be used for women and not for men–hen-hearted, for example, is the only one I can call to mind right now, but there is a certain amount of derisive humor in that adjective, as if a woman should only be called on her cowardice if she is afraid of silly things. 

I discovered this lack when I was writing a scene in which my heroine is trying to talk herself into doing something which terrifies her.  In my search for some good scorning names for her to upbraid herself with, I encountered only endless terms for men, most of them inappropriate to the situation. 

I checked several different thesauri to verify my observation.  In all of them, a dozen terms for coward, and of them perhaps three would be gender-neutral and the rest would have some element of masculinity built into their meaning.  Why?  Why are all the terms about men?  Is it because women simply never think of themselves in those terms, because it is not expected of women that they be brave, nor held against them that they are not?  Does it have less to do with expectations/perceptions of the female and center on the fact that men do think of themselves in those terms and define themselves and each other by their bravery or lack thereof?  Does it imply that women in general fear everything, or that women in general fear nothing?  Is it because women don’t boast about being brave even when they have been, especially if the context for that bravery is social interactions and not some enemy or slavering beast seeking death?

I am not an etymologist nor a social historian, so I can’t begin to speak to the reason for the gap in the English lexicon.  I would think one of the predecessor cultures would have had some such term–you know, for the Germanic wife who didn’t go running behind her man to keep him marching at the Roman phalanx and not fleeing the battle–but it didn’t seem to survive the great cullings of words that periodically happen.  If someone out there knows such a term, drop it in my comments, please!  My heroine has been left greivously tongue-tied with what feels like it should be lethologica but might in fact be a quite justified exhaustion of all the possible alternatives.

On the flip side, I cannot think of any positive terms that encapsulate courageous woman.  Since there is a lack of terms for both the positive and the negative sides of courage, I am left to conclude that it was simply not a quality that was considered in women one way or another.  And I find that…sad.


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Filed under Ramblings, Reflections on Romance, Writing

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