Ever since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I’ve been mulling how a person could bring himself to do such a thing. How twisted, lost, empty, and or monstrous can a person be? I mean, hate is one thing. Going on a murderous rampage is quite another … isn’t it? Are those two things closer than they used to be?
I’ve also been wondering, albeit to a lesser extent, what word most accurately describes the kind of person who perpetrates such acts of terror. The word that keeps coming to mind is coward and, indeed, those responsible for terrorist acts are commonly labeled as such. In fact, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis referred to the synagogue shooter as a coward the day after the incident. I understand why. The killer gunned down 11 people who ranged in age from 54 to 97 in a house of worship. Clearly, he sought out a target that wouldn’t put up much of a fight. (Even if you agree with this lunatic’s ideology you have to admit there is absolutely nothing courageous about ambushing unarmed seniors.)
Yet, despite knowing why Mattis used it, the word coward, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “A reproachful designation for one who displays ignoble fear or want of courage in the face of danger, pain, or difficulty,” still seems somewhat lacking in this particular context. Although heavy on shame, there is nothing sinister in the OED’s definition, nothing that speaks to the shooter’s inhumane and unjust acts. Put bluntly, it addresses neither the shooter’s intent to kill nor the defenselessness and vulnerability of his victims.
To see if I could find another, more expansive definition of coward, I checked the other references at my disposal. The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd Ed.) parrots the OED’s definition mentioned above. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary does the same and then adds the senses “lacking courage; timid” and “proceeding from excessive fear or timidity (e.g., a coward cry).” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.) offers “One who shows disgraceful fear or timidity” and Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines coward as, “one who shows ignoble fear: a basely timid, easily frightened, and easily daunted person.”
To see if the word somehow lost a sense of inhumanity or maleficence I hit up the etymology texts on the SDCL’s shelves. All are generally in agreement that, as the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology puts it:
Coward, which before 1250 was couard, [is] borrowed from Old French coart, from coe “tail,” which comes from Latin coda, dialectical variant of cauda “tail.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps [it is] a reference to the tail in its allusion to an animal “turning tail” in fright or to the habit of a frightened animal of drawing the tail between the hind legs.
As interesting as that is, it wasn’t much help, so I tried another approach and began investigating the synonyms of coward to see if there was a related term that captured the sense of evil and malignancy. It turns out there is. The word I was looking for is dastard and, according to Webster’s Third International Dictionary, it is defined as “one who carries out malicious or sneaky acts without exposing himself to danger.” Webster’s Third also includes dastardly under it’s list of synonyms for coward and notes, “dastardly is used in references to situations and personalities blending utter cowardice with the treacherous or outrageous.”
Curious to see what other dictionaries had to say about dastard, I consulted the (exasperated-sounding) Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. The former offers, “One who meanly shrinks from danger, especially one who does malicious acts in a skulking way,” whereas the latter gives the curt (but nonetheless charming) description, “a mean, sulking coward.”
Really nailed it.
1) If you’d like to donate to Tree of Life synagogue or support the survivors & victims’ families, see the information here.
2) Interested in what other synonyms for coward (or cowardice) might have escaped me, I looked between the covers of the Dictionary of Uncommon Words (DCW) and The Thinker’s Thesaurus (TT), both of which contained some real gems. Among them are:
Invertebracy: The state or quality of being without a backbone, hence, metaphorically spineless; lack of strength or character. (DCW)
Poltroonery: Cowardice, cowardly behavior (DCW/TT)
Pusillanimity: A cowardly, irresolute, or fainthearted condition (DCW/TT)
Recreancy: Cowardice, treason, or disloyalty (DCW)
Retromingent: Urinating backwards. According to the TT, “it has taken on a slang meaning — cowardly — in addition to being used as kind of a general, all-purpose insulting way to describe a person.