Meaning and Synonym
- used to describe a cowardly and weak person.
- not brave
- easily frightened
- lacking courage
- timid and pusillanimous
- There is no place for a lily-livered soldier in The United States Army.
- I thought my dog was lily-livered, but I was wrong.
- The bully considered us a bunch of lily-livered outsiders. But we taught him a good lesson.
“Lily-livered” is a common idiom used in everyday English conversations with quite an interesting backstory. People, however, have been using this term for centuries to describe someone who lacks courage or is cowardly. This phrase’s origin dates way back to the medieval period, and its initial use can be traced back to the early 17th century.
Ideally, the phrase combines “liver” and “lily.” The former symbolizes various qualities and attributes, including resilience, vitality, and life. Contextually, in this phase, however, the liver is a metaphor for courage and bravery. The organ’s connection to blood highlights spirit and vitality, a popular notion in medieval times relative to the term.
Conversely, a lily is a delicate and incredibly vulnerable flower. Combining these two words to form a single phrase, “lily-livered,” emphasizes the idea of a weak and pale liver to show a lack of courage.
“Lily-livered” is an organically generated term in English; no single individual can claim the pioneering right to coin it. Nonetheless, its first appearance can be traced to William Shakespeare’s work in his book “Macbeth,” likely written in 1605–06.
Shakespeare actually makes use of it twice, in two plays that are thought to have been written in the early 1600s:
“Go pricke thy face, and ouer-red thy feare / Thou Lilly-liuer’d Boy” (Macbeth)
“A lily-liuer’d, action-taking knaue, a whoreson” (King Lear, December 1606)
This term has several variants with few or no nuances. Popular alternatives include “chicken-hearted” and “yellow-bellied,” often used insultingly. Other similar phrases include gutless and spineless, all denoting a lack of courage, boldness, and resolve to do something, often pretty challenging. However, please note that you may need to use these terms selectively based on the underlying theme.