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What is the word that captures the attitude of escaping a circumstance when things seem to get hard or are going bad.

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Sometimes this attitude may be the correct course of action! – NoChance Oct 30 '12 at 8:35
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Traitor, weasel, chicken, deserter, opportunist - these words all have some nuances of a person who does not/can not follow through when the going gets hard or you need to depend on that person and they can't be found when the chips are down.

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Precisely your title metaphor is captured in the traditional “rats deserting a sinking ship”.

bookbrowse.com gives this background:

Rats have been said to be the first to sense an impending disaster, such as a sinking ship or a gas leak in a mine—so if rats are seen leaving it's a good idea to follow!

Early records of this expression go back all the way to Pliny The Elder's *Natural History (77 AD): 'When a building is about to fall down, all the mice desert it'.

It also appears in a form closer to the modern usage in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act I, Scene II (1610):

Prospero: In few, they hurried us aboard a bark,
     Bore us some leagues to sea; where they prepar'd
     A rotten carcass of a boat, not rigg'd,
     Nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats
     Instinctively had quit it.

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+1 because I think you're right, but I do think our metaphorical rat has increasingly taken on connotations of backstabber, betrayer, sneak, snitch, etc.. Not that shipboard rats would ever have been the sailor's "friend", but Russell's obliquely-reference "fair-weather friend" is a more likely expression today in OP's context. – FumbleFingers Oct 29 '12 at 22:02
@FumbleFingers I agree that you need the whole phrase, not just "rats". A single word is hard. "Bandwagoner" works, but from the far side. – StoneyB Oct 29 '12 at 22:10
+1 'Rats' should be the word that comes to mind first. And for all the right reasons. – Kris Oct 30 '12 at 4:08


Maybe coward, depending on the details.

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"Fair weather sailor" - even fits your 'jump ship' metaphor.

Urban dictionary - fair weather sailor

  • fair-weather sailor
    See fair-weather friend.
    Someone who is agreeable only when the prevailing conditions are pleasant.
    Unreliable when the going gets rough.
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I think that Urban Dictionary link has little credibility. "fair-weather friend" gets 14,600 hits on Google Books, practically every one of which will match OP's context. Whereas "fair-weather sailor" gets only 3280, and every one I looked at was for the literal meaning inexperienced sailor who's never been tested by the weather. – FumbleFingers Oct 29 '12 at 22:14
...(but fair-weather friend is spot on, so no downvote! :) – FumbleFingers Oct 29 '12 at 22:15

~ Abandoner ~ deserter ~ betrayer ~ turncoat

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+1 deserter = fugitive from responsibility – Fuhrmanator Oct 30 '12 at 4:21
Note a "betrayer" or "turncoat" is not someone who gives up, but actively joins the opposing side. – Jay Oct 30 '12 at 6:27

If you don't mind using a verbal phrase instead of a noun, you could use wimp out, bail out, or punch out. NOAD says:

wimp out: withdraw from a course of action or a stated position in a way that is seen as feeble or cowardly.

bail out: (of a member of an aircrew) make an emergency parachute descent from an aircraft; eject.

figurative become free of an obligation or commitment; discontinue an activity: she felt ready to bail out of the corporate rat race

As for punch out, NOAD says:

punch out: register one's departure from work, esp. by means of a time clock

but punch out can also be used synonymously with bail out (of an aircraft)1. So, essentially, punch out can work in two ways at once: it can mean to eject (from a flight) or to quit (from work). In some contexts, that can express the meaning you want:

Paul punched out on us; he ran to the prosecuter and copped a plea!

You might also consider wuss (or wussy). NOAD says:

wuss: a weak or ineffectual person

I've also heard the word wuss used to indicate the opposite of tough and resolute, which seems like what you're trying to convey.

1For example, “In late June another pilot was lost when he punched out after reporting unspecified problems.” (Barrett Tillman, MiG Master: The Story of the F-8 Crusader, 1980, p. 93).

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