"one who lacks courage to meet danger or shrinks from the chance of being hurt," mid-13c., from Anglo-French couard, couart, Old French coart "coward" (no longer the usual word in French, which has now in this sense poltron, from Italian, and lâche), from coe "tail," from Latin coda, popular dialect variant of cauda "tail" (see coda) + -ard, an agent noun suffix denoting one that carries on some action or possesses some quality, with derogatory connotation (see -ard).
The word probably reflects an animal metaphoric sense still found in expressions like turning tail and tail between legs. Coart was the name of the hare in Old French versions of "Reynard the Fox." Italian codardo, Spanish cobarde (Old Spanish couarde) are from French. The spelling in English was influenced by cow (v. and n.).
[S]o strong is the false belief that every bully must be a coward that acts requiring great courage are constantly described as cowardly or dastardly if they are so carried out as not to give the victim a sporting chance; the throwing of a bomb at a king's carriage is much less dastardly than shooting a partridge, because the thrower takes a very real risk .... [Fowler]
As a surname (attested from mid-13c.) it represents Old English cuhyrde "cow-herd." As an adjective, "lacking courage, timorous," from late 13c. Farmer has coward's castle "a pulpit," "Because a clergyman may deliver himself therefrom without fear of contradiction or argument."
"want of courage to face danger, dread of harm or pain," c. 1300, from Old French coardise (13c.), from coard, coart "coward" (see coward) + noun suffix -ise.
Cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination. [Ernest Hemingway, "Men at War," 1942]
Yit had I levir do what I may Than here to dye thus cowerdelye ["Le Morte d'Arthur," c. 1450]
An Old English word for "cowardly" was earg, which also meant "slothful." Related: Cowardliness.
"A coward; a nidgit; a scoundrel" [Johnson, who spells it poltron], 1520s, from French poultron "rascal, coward; sluggard" (16c., Modern French poltron), from Italian poltrone "lazy fellow, coward," from poltro "lazy, cowardly," which is apparently from poltro "couch, bed" (compare Milanese polter, Venetian poltrona "couch"), perhaps from a Germanic source (compare Old High German polstar "pillow;" see bolster (n.)), or perhaps from Latin pullus "young of an animal" (from PIE root *pau- (1) "few, little"). Also see -oon. Related: Poltroonish; poltroonery.
"one who yields in combat, one who begs for mercy, one who admits defeat," early 15c., hence "coward, faint-hearted wretch;" from recreant (adj.) and from Old French recreant as a noun, "one who acknowledges defeat, a craven, coward, renegade, traitor, wretch." In English, the sense of "apostate, deserter, villain" is from 1560s.
British slang word of uncertain origin, attested from 1859 as "a fixed or sham prize-fight," also "lark, spree, rough enjoyment;" 1864 as "noisy dispute."
"Notes and Queries," from March 21, 1863, describes Barnard Castle, the market town in Teesdale, as having "no enviable reputation. Longstaffe supposes that Sir George Bowes's refusal to fight with the rebels during the rising of the north, gave rise to the contemptuous distich:
'Coward, a coward of Barney Castell,
Dare not come out to fight a battel' "
And adds that "Come, come, that's a Barna' Cassell," is "a reproof to an exaggerator, or liar."
mid-15c., a term of contempt for one who is lazy or dull; an English formation on a French model, probably from *dast, "dazed," past participle of dasen "to daze" (see daze (v.)) or the equivalent past participle in Old Norse + deprecatory suffix -ard. Meaning "one who shirks from danger, base coward" is late 15c.