Poltroon was one of the nineteenth century’s favourite insults, meaning an utter coward, often preceded by adjectives such as base or wretched. Stories of the more sensational kind preferred stronger words:
“If you are not, after all,” resumed the duke, “the veriest coward and most lily-livered poltroon in all his majesty’s dominions, follow me into that carriage, Prince.”
Sylvester’s Eve, By William Henry Farn, published in Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine in 1843. Lily-livered poltroon became a cliché, later to be mocked by P G Wodehouse.
In the eighteenth century its origin was widely believed to be that suggested by an eminent French classical scholar of the previous century, Claudius Salmasius. He theorised that the word derived from medieval longbowmen. One who wished not to risk his skin in combat had only to make himself incapable of drawing a longbow by cutting off his right thumb. In Latin, pollice truncus meant maimed in the thumb; Salmasius asserted that this had become corrupted into the French poltron.
In the nineteenth century this wildly inventive view was no longer believed. Scholars noted instead that in French — and also in the obviously related Italian poltrone — the word didn’t just mean a coward but also someone who wallowed in sloth and idleness. This led them to believe that it originated in Italian poltro, a couch, an etymology respectable enough to be cited in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Today’s Oxford etymologists are sure both stories are wrong. They point instead to the classical Latin pullus for the young of any animal, particularly a young domestic fowl or chicken. It’s the source also of pullet and is related to poultry and — more distantly — to foal. The link is an ancient reference to the notoriously timorous and craven behaviour of farmyard fowl.
So a poltroon is chicken. How appropriate.
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