I've noticed a trend for American leaders to use the word "cowardly" to describe acts of violence:

I'm trying to figure out what, exactly, is meant in this context. Let me make it clear that there is no doubt in my mind that the events referenced above are all horrendous and abhorrent. I'm just trying to figure out if describing them as "cowardly" is appropriate.

Cowardly (According Merriam Webster):

afraid in a way that makes you unable to do what is right or expected : lacking courage

The part that jumps out at me is "lacking courage":


the ability to do something that frightens one.

Are we to agree that the perpetrators of the events lacked courage? It seems to me that they did not lack courage because each of the acts involved something that is likely to frighten the perpetrator (and therefore cannot be called cowardly).

Am I missing the real meaning of the phrase, or perhaps, just thinking about it too much? I'll admit that my initial interpretation is that it has something to do with being "unmanly" in that it could be perceived that the perpetrators didn't face their "enemies" straight on. But it still doesn't seem correct.

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    It is a cliché in that it is trite and overused, but it retains power. Entertainer Bill Mahar opined in 2001 that the September 11 hijackers did not meet the definition of coward, and lost his job over it.
    – choster
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 21:40
  • @choster interesting! I wasn't aware of that. So this has obviously been brought up before. Thanks. Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 11:13
  • Misrepresenting the character of an enemy is not a new phenomenon. For an example, see the 1940 Charlie Chaplin move "The Great Dictator." Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 14:51
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    The standard rule is that patriots and resistance/freedom fighters are brave and devoted to an ideal, while terrorists and insurgents/extremists are cowardly and fanatical. So all that remains is to be the person writing the history, so you can attach the correct labels to the correct individuals.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 10:44

10 Answers 10


Ah, but you are to agree that the perpetrators lacked courage, or at least that is what the person making the statement intends when they make it.

They are framing some uses of force (whether one calls a given use force violence or not is a similarly politicised matter) as cowardly while others (generally those that they would themselves sanction, such as military operations they support) as not cowardly, or indeed brave.

Linguistically, it is a valid use of the normal sense of the word cowardly. Whether one agrees with the statement is another matter.

You're not far off in your idea of what is deemed "unmanly", particularly in those cases dealing with assymetric warfare, where one side may portray their enemy as cowardly because they plant bombs and flee rather than engage in open combat and the other side may just as well portray their enemy as cowardly because they are better armed and have air superiority which they may use rather than engage in open combat.

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    Of the answers here so far, I definitely like this the best because I find it both the most illuminating and least emotional. Well written. Nicely done.
    – John Y
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 1:44
  • It seems obvious to me that (using awkward phrasing for emphasis) the the perpetrators did not lack courage (they might have been lacking a lot of things, but courage wasn't one of them. Regardless, I think you're correct in saying "at least that is what the person making the statement... [wants you to agree with]. And as such, accepting your answer. Thanks. Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 14:58
  • Yeah, there's a difference between questions what a phrasing is meant to convey and whether one agrees with it.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 19, 2013 at 9:33

I think the phrase cowardly act is idiomatic.

When this phrase is invoked, it is intended to cast the mismatch between the combat status of the attacker and the targets as dishonorable. In each of the examples cited in the question, though the perpetrator may eventually be apprehended by combatants, the majority of the targets are civilians.

Note that this is different than notions of asymmetric warfare, in which unconventional methods or mismatched conventional methods are employed by combatants chiefly to target other combatants. Examples here might include a small-boat swarm attack targeting a guided-missile destroyer, or a hundred-dollar rocket propelled grenade fired at a multi-million dollar attack helicopter.

This term has be employed previously. Please note the following examples, my emphasis added.

Clinton Administration - White House Press Briefing (1997):

The President is outraged and saddened by this morning's incident in Hebron, when an off-duty Israeli soldier fired into a crowd of civilians. The President has called Chairman Arafat to express his condolences to him and to the families of the victims. The President condemns this cowardly act, which was clearly designed to make it more difficult to conclude an agreement on Israeli deployment from Hebron.

President Reagan - On the Bombing of the United States Embassy in Beirut (1983):

Let me begin with a brief statement. As you know, our Embassy in Beirut was the target this morning of a vicious, terrorist bombing. This cowardly act has claimed a number of killed and wounded. It appears that there are some American casualties, but we don't know yet the exact number or the extent of injury.

President Carter - On the Death of the Former Italian Prime Minister (1978):

My sympathies and the sympathies of all Americans go out to Aldo Moro's bereaved family and nation.

His murder is a contemptible and cowardly act. His death advances no cause but that of mindless anarchy. But his life was devoted to building his nation, and his political skills were forever at the service of justice.

In short, these acts are dishonorable because of the the mismatch of the combat status of the attacker and the target, rather than the methods employed.

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    I agree, and I'd go so far as to wonder if the idiom has become a coping mechanism of sorts. In other words, one way to deal with the shock of the horrific event is to label the perpetrators as "cowards."
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 23:53
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    Definitely agree on the idiomatic nature of the phrase, and on @J.R.'s comment about its use as a coping mechanism of sorts. I am less gung-ho about agreeing that the cowardice really has to do with the combat status of the target, partly because the use of the phrase is more indiscriminate than that, and partly because "combat status" can be a very fuzzy and subjective concept in the messy real world.
    – John Y
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 2:03
  • @JohnY The frame here for combat status is International Humanitarian Law, specifically, the special status of civilians. I agree that this subject is exceedingly messy. My intent with the gloss is to point out that the force used isn't the issue nearly so much as who the force is directed against.
    – twip
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 14:38
  • I wasn't trying to imply media bias or conspiracy, but I had no idea that the phrase was used as far back as Carter. Thanks for the quote. Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 14:52
  • @AdamBalsam I didn't mean that you were, and I've edited that line: it's plenty enough to note that it's happened before without me supplementing with inflammatory language. Thank you for the feedback. I'm still learning the StackExchange genre.
    – twip
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 16:06

The only way that "cowardly" can rightly apply is if we consider the murderers had other ways to forward their cause (e.g. politics). Instead of conducting a peaceful revolution, they 'take the easy path', which is 'cowardly'.

But, this is not the only way of understanding the shaping of perception in the public sphere:

This is also media spin for constructing popular opinion. Rightly, I'd add, though I agree that in that regard it's not technically correct to use this word.

Taking a weapon and killing people is in one way not an act of cowering: the murderer (in these cases) will clearly be apprehended and their life will be over (through prison or death sentence). There is a strength (non-cowardice) required to more-or-less end your own life (literally or practically).

The public interest is served by not framing this as any-form-of brave. That would provide praise to the murderer(s). It would probably encouage others.

I have a personal hunch that the usage around 2001, when media needed a way to condemn suicide bombers for attacks on the WTC. Many suicide 'missions' are performed out of a concept of 'honor'. Publicly-labeling these people as cowards is (perhaps?) the strongest response to in swaying the opinions of those that would 'try next.' This being a more effective response than to use any term that would convey power - even that the murderer(s) had the power to be brutal and savage.

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    > The only way that "cowardly" can rightly apply is if we consider the murderers had other ways to forward their cause +1 Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 18:42
  • I mostly agree with you, but I think when we attempt to use emotional manipulation in situations like this it usually backfires.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 1:52

Lets imagine for a moment that Dwight is a 6'3" foot tall world class karate black belt. Jim, on the other hand, is only 5 feet tall, and he weighs about 100 lbs. (45kg.)

Jim hates Dwight. Jim hates Dwight with such passion that he will do anything to ruin Dwight's life, but Jim is also afraid of Dwight. Instead of walking up to Dwight and addressing the issue, Jim blows up Dwight's car.

The story demonstrates the meaning behind the proclamation of a "cowardly act." The assertion is that if the perpetrator had been brave or manly, he would have chosen to directly confront the target of his feelings in a "fair fight." Terrorism by its nature is cowardly, in that it targets the weak, the innocent, and the civilian. Terrorism is by its nature a "sucker punch," delivered without warning upon people with no means to defend themselves.

I think it would be illustrative to compare and contrast between a kamikaze pilot from World War 2, and a suicide bomber from 2013.

  • I think this action explains it the best.
    – ithisa
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 0:18
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    Would you apply this logic to drone attacks?
    – Beta
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 1:27
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    @Beta or indeed, B52 bombing raids against an enemy with no anti-air capability...
    – AakashM
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 8:05

Anyone who cared about language would draw a distinction betwen your examples; planting a timebomb is cowardly, since it involves no personal risk and does not involve standing up publicly for your cause as a soldier does. Suicide bombers like the 9/11 terrorists are plainly not cowardly in this sense; nor is a man who starts shooting (for whatever reason) and continues until he is shot dead. But it may be unwise to say this too loudly; the world is full of people who think "This action was not cowardly" means "This action was not so bad" if not "I support this action". Often, and particularly in political speeches, cowardly means vile or something I disagree with.

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    Good distinction. I would argue that placing a bomb in a public space behind "enemy" lines does indeed require courage though. Often, and particularly in political speeches, cowardly means vile or something I disagree with. I agree. Simply put, this may be the answer (I'll update after thinking some more) Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 18:44
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    Building and planting timebombs is risky, people have inadvertently blown themselves up doing so.
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 21:46
  • Agreed. In political speech, "cowardly" has been divorced from its actual meaning, but it still retains enough of its contemptuous flavor to be used as an all-purpose insult. This is not new in politics.
    – Beta
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 23:27
  • @Hugo that may be so, but there is a distinction between someone who furtively hides a civilian bomb and someone who is combating a battle and plants bomb in clear acts of warfare. I would not define the latter, a cowardly act.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 10:10

The politicians are definitely using the word "cowardly" wrong.

Cowardice means you were in a group in which all the members agreed to divide some risks among the members so that all could share in a gain, but a coward choses to excuse himself from his share of risk, without notice, in violation of the agreement, when the danger confronts him.

For example, a soldier turns and runs from a battle that could have been won if only he had not done so. All the soldiers in the platoon had an understood agreement that they would all fight, until victory, a call for retreat, or they are clearly overrun. The other soldiers correctly consider the one who deserts in the middle of a winnable battle a "coward".

A mass shooting by a mentally unstable man does not fit in any way into the context of "cowardice". The politicians are quite stupid and wrong to describe it this way.

The best we can say for the politicians is that they "hate cowardice", and they hate the mass shooting too, therefore they think the mass shooting must have been a "cowardice" because it is a thing they hate.

It is a logical error called "denying the consequent". It means the politicians are also making this logical error CONSTANTLY when they make more mundane decisions that are less dramatic about law & policy, thus hurting you & me. But we only see them do it publicly when a disaster like this happens, and they are pressured to speak immediately.

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    I love the point that a mass shooting by someone who is mentally unstable doesn't (necessarily) constitute cowardice. (After all, they might not even be capable of feeling cowardice.) And I appreciate the attempt to use logic. Unfortunately, I think that is clouded by the vehemence of this answer. It's hard to convince people that your logic is sound when you present it with emotionally charged language. I want to stress that I agree with most of the points made, but I think they would carry more weight if presented more calmly.
    – John Y
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 2:18
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    @JohnY: "Emotionally charged language"? "Vehemence"? This answer looks quite calm to me. (Although I don't agree with every word of it; the politicians are not necessarily stupid if they say something dishonest that wins them popular support.)
    – Beta
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 4:27
  • @Beta The phrase, "The politicians are quite stupid..." and "... when they make more mundane decisions that are less dramatic about law & policy, thus hurting you & me." are objectionable IMO.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 10:14

The consensus seems to be that "cowardly" is used as victims of terrorist attacks may not return fire. Thus eligible attack is only against equally equipped opponent. It seems that politicians accuse the terrorists of not adhering to medieval theoretical chivalric code. Unfortunately if this was the case, then:

  • snipers
  • drone operators
  • any air attack on a target without appropriate AA defence
  • pilots of F22 Raptor
  • submariners
  • pilots using air-to-surface missiles (not many countries are able to shoot down missiles). are all cowards. Of course it is not the case.

Using the word coward is in fact purely political. It also sells well in media. Moreover this also contains the message "this is not the pattern one should reproduce". They can't use the word "dishonest" as this is no longer shocking (even in the Bible David killed Goliath, also Judith cut off the head of the Holophernes at night). In fact in military terms being "honest" is an anomaly.

Personally i think that if the word "barbaric" or "uncivilized" would be better. Using "cowardly" is just best from the political point of view, as this feature of character is disdained by almost everyone.

  • Great late answer. Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 12:54

IMO This phrase has distorted the meaning of cowardice, as a coward is someone who runs from a fight. These "cowardly acts" are better termed "contemptible acts" - which implies the act was dishonorable and disgraceful which has the impact the phrase should have. Taking advantage of an opportunity to attack, and run away, implies they are first brave; but the act itself, the killing of innocents was done by someone brave enough to complete the act, so in that moment they were brave, not cowardly. How they behave afterward, whether committing suicide, which is also brave, to take ones life is difficult, regardless of rewards in heaven; or to escape, so they can kill another day, is tactical and/or strategic. In cases where they have killed civilians, it is more from a lack of regard for human life, or for a specific type of human life, and terming everyone of a certain belief as part of a group that should be annihilated. There is no dishonor to them to end those lives, and takes bravery to pull a trigger, with no thought to your own safety. They, IMO, are not cowards, but murderers... The use of "dishonorable" acts is helpful, rather than the term "cowardly", as calling someone a coward, is usually followed by calling someone out, to fight face to face, or just fight -- encouraging more acts.. there is little strategy in calling out murderers to do more.

  • Yeah, I think "contemptible" and "dishonorable" are better, more apt adjectives.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 1:54

I believe the use of the word cowardly when used to describe terrorist acts is because they are attacking unarmed civilians. It takes much less courage to engage in a firefight with people who don't have guns than with people who do.

So politicians like to use cowardly because it...

  • (As others have said) Servers public interest

  • Exploits to way to attack was carried out to (on unarmed civilians) to degrade the action


It is legitimate to use the word coward on someone who inflicts violence on others who are not equally armed or not able to defend themselves: for instance, mowing down victims who are not able to return fire.

Sometimes such perpetrators in fact "die yellow" when they are later sentenced and executed: they struggle and faint on the way to the execution, which confirms that they are not able to face death, in spite of having killed others.

But other kinds of murderers do not fit the definition; at the height of their rampage they are able to act while staring death in the face and even perish.

It is not correct to indiscriminately use coward as a synonym for "heinous murderer". On the other hand, words like brave or courageous do not apply either, because they have positive connotations. Someone described by a speaker as "brave" is not only steadfast and calm in the face of danger, but has an ideology that the speaker identifies with in some way (if not agrees with outright). Cowardly is not an opposite of brave that can be used to express disagreement with someone's ideology; it only expresses the inability to act due to fear, regardless of morality or ideology.

There are words which are like bravery but which express some degree of the speaker's disagreement with the morals, ideology or manners of the subject, words such as: impudence, gall, nerve, audacity, brazenness, insolence or effrontery.

Sometimes heinous perpetrators have such qualities, and sometimes they are cowards.

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    I see nothing wrong with calling a villain brave if he is. To deny that such a word applies to him when it does is as bad as calling him a coward when he isn't.
    – Beta
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 1:23
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    @Beta You may call a villain brave, but that doesn't shake the positive connotations. Your tone will be regarded as identifying with the villain's perspective in some way, which is why you chose "brave" rather than "brazen" or something else.
    – Kaz
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 3:43
  • Why would I want to shake the positive connotations, or fear being regarded as brave or fair-minded? There are people who classify everything as good or ungood, and who, if they heard me say that Saddam Hussein died bravely (which he did) would conclude that I was pro-Hussein (which I am not). I don't generally bother about people that stupid, but when I don't want to ruffle their feathers I just keep quiet; better to be silent than to spout orthodoxy.
    – Beta
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 4:21
  • @Beta Saying that Hussein died bravely doesn't mean you are pro Hussein. But it is a narrative tone which identifies with Hussein in some way; it takes a subjective perspective from a position close to Hussein. It's kind of like how a samurai can have a regard for an enemy whom he slays.
    – Kaz
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 4:37

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