Thursday, October 7, 2010


Well, time to get back to theme here, I guess. "Craven" isn't exactly a word I think of as an everyday sort of word. In fact, it brings to mind Dickensian characters. But I've used it myself recently, and it seems to be popping up everywhere I look for some reason. So what does it really mean? And where does it come from?

In my thinking, the craven person is a bit of a suck-up. But there is also the sense of weakness and cowardice in their makeup, as well as large amounts of disingenuousness, calculation and self-interest. So let's look at the dictionary definition...

"Characterized by abject fear; cowardly." And worse:"lacking the least bit of courage; contemptibly fainthearted" . Cowardice. Well, that seems pretty uncomplicated. Its roots, though, seem a bit more tangled.

It goes back to Middle English cravant, which is thought to come from old French crevant or crevante, meaning "defeated", which comes from cravanter, "to strike doen, to fall down," and back to Latin crepare, to crack or creak. Sometime around 1400, the word shifted from the sense of "defeated" to the current sense of cowardly, possibly under the influence of the word "crave", which comes from the different Old English crafian, to beg.

Now here's something interesting--well, at least to me. For some unknown reason, I was just thinking this morning about the word "recreant", thinking I might do it as a future blog post. But apparently there is one school of thought that sees some link between these words, as "recreant" also turns out to mean a coward, or cravenly person.  Here's an Etymological Dictionary page on the subject. Apparently," recreant" goes back to the Latin credere, to believe, and has the meaning of yielding, or surrendering allegiance. I suppose it's as simple as one word being about the process of being broken, and the other being about the act of surrender.

Either way, it doesn't look too good for the poor craven recreant in the end...


  1. I was hoping the definition in your second paragraph was the correct one as I need a good word to describe Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. I was watching the BBC making of it and there just doesn't seem a perfect word to fit him.

  2. I know. "Craven" is a bit more specific than I would have thought.

    But how about "unctuous", "smarmy" or "grovelling"?

  3. Yes, re: suck-up, etc. I always hear the connotations of guilt in the word "craven." Maybe over time it has come to suggest the coward aware of his/her weakness, still desperately trying to appease the thing he/she fears.

    Seems like that might relate to the fear of God and the belief/credulity root.

  4. Yes, I think it's the appeasement factor that may have made the word a bit confused in my mind.

    It's funny that in reading up on this, I feel like the word has roots in situations in which anyone would be afraid, so I'm not sure how it came to have only negative connotations.

  5. Oh, unctuous is a good one. I like it.

  6. Good. So are you going to use it in your review?

  7. Probably so, if I ever get around to writing it. The kids aren't too fond of letting me sit on here lately.

  8. I guess craven would describe someone too scared to speak out against fawning lickspittles.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  9. Right. Lickspittle is a nice word, though.

  10. I've had occasion to use the word in my time.

    My v-word is lovely: bless