A spineless person is said to be, "without moral force, resolution, or courage; feeble" - http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/spineless. So they are cowardly. But where did that term come from? Are creatures without spines such as worms or squids inherently without courage?

  • 3
    A spineless person can't stand up for himself, nor can he stand firm or hold his head up and keep his back straight. He must stoop and cower or quiver and tremble like a bowl of jelly. Note that all the metaphors apply to a spineless person, because people are supposed to have spines; a person without a spine is degenerate, lacking.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 14:18
  • It came in every language of the world. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 17:21
  • Spineless creatures are not inherently timid (example)
    – Minnow
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 22:10

1 Answer 1


As Dan Bron's comment above suggests, there is a tradition (in English, at least) of associating such heroic virtues as standing tall, standing firm, and standing up for oneself (or for what is right) with having a backbone (that is, vertebrae or a spine).

Also traditionally, assuming the appropriate posture of a supplicant—whether on a battlefield or in a king's court or (metaphorically) in any other situation—involves bowing down or lying prostrate before the victor or superior person from whom the supplicant is seeking mercy or asking a favor.

It seems likely that someone long ago noticed that the posture of submission is one in which, physically, the spine plays very little role—and this insight, I imagine, encouraged the figurative relationship between spinelessness and lack of courage, fortitude, resolution, etc.

But this connection, I think, is strictly concerned with differences between perceived types of human beings—between those who metaphorically as well as in reality possess spines (and who, as a result, can stand upright on their own two feet) and those who metaphorically lack them (and who, as a result, cannot). I doubt that the figure of speech was influenced in any meaningful way by consideration of whether hornets, for example, are braver or more craven than field mice.

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