As a noun, coward denotes a person who lacks courage, as an adjective, it means lacking courage.
This word appeared in Middle-English forms such as cuard and cowert, from Old- and Middle-French forms such as cuard, coart and couart (Modern French couard, feminine couarde – see footnote).
The French forms are from:
– cüe, cöe, coue (Modern French queue), from Latin cauda, denoting the tail of an animal,
– and the pejorative suffix -ard (feminine -arde) as in bastard.
In its first edition (1893), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explained:
The precise reference to ‘tail’ is uncertain: it may be to an animal ‘turning tail’ in flight, or to the habit in frightened animals of drawing the tail between the hinder legs […]. It is notable that in the Old French version of Reynard the Fox, Coart is the name of the hare: this may be a descriptive appellation in reference to its timidity; but it is also possible that the hare was so called originally from its tail or ‘bunt’, so conspicuous as the animal makes off, and that the name was thence transferred to ‘hearts of hare’.
In support of the theory that coward originally referred to a frightened animal with its tail between its legs, the OED mentions the fact that in heraldry the word is used, of an animal, to mean depicted with the tail between the hind legs; the following illustration and description are from A Display of Heraldrie (London, 1611), by John Guillim (1550-1621), who was a herald:
A Lion Rampand coward
He beareth Argent a Lion Rampand, Coward, purpure [= purple], by the name of Rowch. This is termed a Lion Coward, for that in cowardly sort hee clappeth his taile between his legs, which is proper to all kind of beasts (hauing tailes) in case of extremity and feare, then which nothiug [misprint for nothing] is more contrary to the magnanimity and noble stomacke of the Lion, who will not shrinke or be abashed at any encounter, so valiant and resolute is he of nature.
The adjective cowardy, meaning cowardly, exists only in cowardy, cowardy custard, a meaningless alliteration used especially as a taunt among children.
The earliest instance of cowardy, cowardy custard that I have found is from The Morning Post (London) of Tuesday 22nd October 1822, which published Trash, about the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who had died a few weeks earlier; this article ridiculed Shelley’s poetry, in particular the following lines from Scenes from the Faust of Goethe:
“Honour her to whom honour is due,
Old mother Baubo, honour to you!
An able sow with old Baubo upon her,
Is worthy of glory, and worthy of honour!”
What can be more delectably nonsensical than this honouring and glorifying an “able Sow?” We can recall nothing of Poetry equal to this, save and except the charming nursery strain—
“Cowardy, cowardy custard,
Eat your father’s mustard!”
This rhyming use of cowardy, cowardy custard is therefore similar to that of tit for tat in:
Tit for tat,
Butter for fat;
If you kill my dog,
I’ll kill your cat.
In the Morning Advertiser of Saturday 24th December 1836, the Adelphi Theatre announced:
a new Comic Pantomime, with new and unique Scenery, Dresses, Tricks, and Decorations, called
Cowardy Cowardy Custard; or, Harlequin Jim Crow and the Magic Mustard-pot.
On Sunday 1st January 1837, The Atlas (London) gave a brief summary of this pantomime:
At the Adelphi the drawing up of the curtain discovered Mrs. Glasse, the mirror of cooks, assisted by embodied custard and impersonated mustard, the sweet and bitter of whose loves and trials give odour and pungency to the pantomime. Jim Crow becomes a Clown, and Custard and Mustard undergo their transformations, the piece driving us by “slap and run” from the kitchen and cookery to a fairy ball, with fire-works; the route is intricate, but we pass through very pretty scenery, especially at Cruet Castle. The Homœopathists and the Hygeists [sic] are chiefly hit at by the practical puns of the mechanists. Cowardy Cowardly [sic] Custard; or, Harlequin Jim Crow and the Magic Mustard Pot, is the alliterative title of the Adelphi pantomime.
A variant is cowardly, cowardly custard; on Saturday 20th October 1855, The Illustrated London News published the following query and answer:
What is the meaning, if it have any, of the taunt, boys in my school-days were fond of flinging at each other of “Cowardly, cowardly custard,” &c.?—D.D.
It had its origin, possibly, in the shaking, quivering motion of the confection which our forefathers called “custard,” but which seems to have been similar to what we name “blanc-mange.”
The person who was answering then quoted the following passage from Microcosmus A morall maske (London, 1637), by the English playwright Thomas Nabbes (died 1641); Taste, one of the five senses, explains:
I am my Ladies Cooke, and King of the Kitchin: where I rule the roast; command imperiously, and am a very tyrant in my office. My Subjects being all Souldiers are daily encounter’d by most fierce stomacks, and never return’d but maym’d and dismember’d. Brawne, Beefe, and Porke are alwaies muster’d in the van [= vanguard], and bring up Veale, Mutton, Minc’t-pye, Goose, Turkie, Duck, and so forth. I have a sort of cowardly Custards, borne in the City, but bred up at Court, that quake for feare: yet are as valiant in suffering as the rest, and are all overcome even by the women with much noise.
However, there is a gap of about two centuries between the use of cowardly custards by Thomas Nabbes and that of cowardly custard among children, so that the latter is probably unrelated to the former—it is probably an independent nonsensical formation.
A less usual word is poltron, feminine poltronne (cf. English poltroon), from Italian poltrone.