Q: Some work colleagues and I were speculating where the expression “lily-livered,” meaning cowardly, came from. Do you know?
A: The use of the lily, especially the white Lilium candidum, to describe a coward dates from the Elizabethan age, but the usage may have roots in ancient Greece.
Shakespeare was apparently the first to use the expression “lily-livered” in writing. In fact, he uses it twice—in two plays believed 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).
Shakespeare is using “lily-livered” here as a metaphorical version of “white-livered,” which showed up in English a half-century earlier and meant “cowardly, feeble-spirited, pusillanimous,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first OED citation for the original expression is from a 1546 collection of proverbs by the English writer John Heywood:
“Why thynke ye me so white lyuerd (quoth she?) / That I will be tong tied? Nay I warrant ye.” We’ve expanded the citation to include two full lines of verse.
The dictionary says the expression may ultimately come from an ancient Greek term for cowardly, λευκηπατίας, or leukēpatias, literally “white-livered.”
As Oxford explains, the usage reflects the belief in ancient and medieval times “that a light-coloured liver was considered deficient in bile or choler, and hence lacking in vigour, spirit, or courage.”
In medieval physiology, as we wrote in 2009, the four humors (or fluids) of the body were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile).
These supposedly determined one’s temperament as well as physical and mental health. Imbalances among the humors were blamed for pain and disease.
A temperament governed by blood was buoyant, by phlegm was sluggish, by choler was quick-tempered, and by melancholy was dejected, according to this system.
In “Some Meanings of the Liver,” a paper published in the March 1979 issue of the journal Gastroenterology, Sherman Mellinkoff writes that ancient doctors believed “too much bile caused anger or depression; too little, timidity or cowardice.” Bile, or gall, is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.
As Merriam-Webster Online notes, “In the Middle Ages the study of anatomy, or the cutting up and examining of human corpses, was illegal. Most of what was thought about the body thus was based on the theory of humors.”
“The humor, or body fluid, that was supposed to control anger, spirit, and courage was bile, produced by the liver. A person who lacked courage was supposed to have a white liver, because it had no yellow bile to color it. Thus a cowardly person was called white-livered or, more poetically, lily-livered.”
Interestingly, Shakespeare’s use of “pigeon-livered” around 1600 in Hamlet (“I am pidgion liuerd, and lack gall”) reflects the old belief that the pigeon had a mild disposition because of its lack of a gallbladder.
We’ll end with an excerpt from Barchester Towers (1857), the second of six novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. Here Archdeacon Grantly urges his father-in-law, Mr. Harding, to stand up to Mr. Slope, the Bishop’s chaplain:
“You owe it to us all to resist him in this, even if you have no solicitude for yourself. But surely, for your own sake, you will not be so lily-livered as to fall into this trap which he has baited for you and let him take the very bread out of your mouth without a struggle.”