Q: Standard dictionaries define “craven” as cowardly, but I can’t recall hearing or reading it used that way in the last 10 years. It’s usually used to mean brazen or shameless. Are the dictionaries just not keeping up on this one?
A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all of them define the adjective “craven” as meaning cowardly, though a couple include secondary senses. Collins lists mean-spirited and Random House lists dastardly.
You’re right that many people now use “craven” to mean brazen or shameless, but many others still use it in the traditional sense of cowardly.
For example, a recent column in the Portland Mercury, an alternative weekly in Oregon, uses the brazen or shameless sense when it refers to “a craven attempt” by industrialists to take over the city’s utility bureaus.
But a Nov. 10, 2013, article in the Atlantic uses the traditional meaning in commenting on the “craven decision” of Bloomberg News to curb critical stories from China to avoid angering the Chinese government.
We assume that lexicographers have the new sense on their radar. And if enough people use “craven” brazenly or shamelessly, we’ll be seeing the usage in dictionaries one of these days.
When the adjective “craven” first showed up in the 1200s (spelled crauant in early Middle English), it meant vanquished or defeated, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that sense is now obsolete.
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “craven” probably comes from cravente, Old French for defeated, but the OED is doubtful and describes the etymology of the term as “obscure.”
The earliest Oxford citation for “craven” is from a West Midland manuscript, dated sometime before 1225, about the perhaps apocryphal life of St. Margaret the Maiden and Martyr:
Ich am kempe ant he is crauant þet me wende to ouercumen (“I am a warrior, and he that expected to overcome me is craven”).
The cowardly sense of “craven” apparently showed up sometime before 1400 in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, an anonymous Middle English poem about King Arthur: Haa! crauaunde knyghte! a cowarde þe semez! (“Ha, craven knight! A coward you seem!”)
The OED has a question mark in front of the citation above, apparently unsure whether “craven” here is being used in the sense of defeated or cowardly. We lean toward the cowardly sense, since earlier in the poem the “craven knight” is described as one of a group of Romans who “cowered like puppies before the King’s person.”
We’ll end with a few lines from “The Ballad of High Noon” (perhaps better known as “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ ”), as performed by Tex Ritter in the movie. It won the Oscar for best original song in 1952:
The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave.
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.