I'm looking for another noun to describe someone who knows things are bad, but doesn't do anything to improve the situation because of fear of the consequences of acting.

Ostrich is the closest I can get but it doesn't fit with the six other labels I'm using; it introduces an unwanted comic element. Also, the ostrich pretends not to know: I'm trying to describe someone who knows perfectly well, but feels paralysed. Paralysis could work but it's not a noun used for a person; I can't use paralytic because that would have completely different connotations.

  • 1
    Welcome to EL&U! Could you give use an example sentence in which your word could be used? Sep 15 '16 at 6:21
  • How about someone who is paralysed by fear? It's not a noun, but does fit the bill. Sep 15 '16 at 6:24
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    Can you list the other 6 labels? It would help with finding something that is in keeping with them.
    – Lawrence
    Sep 15 '16 at 8:12
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    Are you looking for a term that also implies a moral judgement? For example, do you wish to express some degree of sympathy for their situation, or some degree of condemnation - or neither?
    – Jeremy
    Sep 15 '16 at 12:02
  • 1
    Could be "victim" if the bad things are happening to the person observing but choosing to do nothing. Sep 15 '16 at 19:16

14 Answers 14


Cambridge Dictionary:

spineless adjective (disapproving) ​

A spineless person does not have much determination and is not willing to take risks:

He was, she concluded, a spineless individual.

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    But OP particularly asked for a noun. Sep 15 '16 at 15:34

Ditherer: Noun. Chiefly [British English] a state of indecision. Verb. To be nervously irresolute in acting or doing. (The Free Dictionary - online)

So, one might say, "He is a ditherer. He is unable to make the necessary decisions to save the company from an aggressive takeover by corporate raiders".


Might 'bystander' fit?

I don't fully understand the context; but a 'bystander' can be, for example, somebody who witnesses a crime or something immoral and doesn't do anything to improve the situation.

Not to be confused with 'innocent bystander', which implies that the person was distant or unable to act.

Good luck!

  • 1
    'Spectator' is also used quite often with the pejorative sense. Sep 15 '16 at 15:38
  • @EdwinAshworth, I think "spectator" may be the best word for this context. Care to make it an answer?
    – Wildcard
    Sep 15 '16 at 22:22
  • 'Bystander' and 'victim' are both close to what I'm trying to capture, but it's probably too nuanced for one word wthout qualifiers. So I'll have to choose! Thank you.
    – Gill
    Sep 20 '16 at 16:41

I think coward is the right noun.

"a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things."

Or perhaps they lack temerity. Temerity is:

"the quality of being confident and unafraid of danger or punishment especially in a way that seems rude or foolish."

  • Hi @Ghost, can you add a link to the sources of your definitions?
    – Hellion
    Sep 15 '16 at 18:51

If your target audience is adults in an informal setting, then the slightly profane would do nicely: "pussy", as in, "John knew the answer to question the professor was asking, but he's such a pussy that he remained silent, for fear of being thought a nerd by his classmates.

...or, an example more to the "knows things are bad but doesn't act" requirement: "The bank manager knew that all it would take was a quick press of the hidden button to notify the police the bank was being robbed, but he's such a pussy that he remained motionless, for fear of being beaten or shot by the robbers."

  • "...then the slightly profane would do nicely...". Quite so! As in the Bond character, "Pussy Galore", I suppose? Sep 15 '16 at 12:37
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    Pussy is a rather sexist term, which I wouldn't recommend even for an "informal adult" setting.
    – SBoss
    Sep 15 '16 at 13:12
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    This term is considered much more than "slightly" profane by many people, use extreme caution.
    – nexus_2006
    Sep 15 '16 at 19:32
  • @nexus_2006 Quite so. I'd switch that to wussy for which far less caution is required! Sep 21 '16 at 0:22

In British slang we use the word bottler to describe someone who has "lost their bottle", or freezes come the big moment.


A procrastinator is someone who knows they must take action, but do not. The definition implies that they are delaying action until later, but they often never take the action. Fear is a common motivation of procrastination.


I think that coward is a perfectly reasonable description of such an individual, but a more vivid, idiomatic term would be to call them a chicken:

chicken (definition 3a) : coward

coward: someone who is too afraid to do what is right or expected : someone who is not at all brave or courageous

definitions from http://www.m-w.com


Like 196's 'bystander', spectator is often used with the pejorative 'stood watching and did nothing' sense. The context is probably more usually a situation where someone can't be bothered to help rather than one where someone is too scared to intervene.

No major online dictionaries I've checked in give the broadened sense; here are two examples from the internet:

'Some MPs are mere spectators' - Ursula

The New Patriotic Party (NPP) MP for Ablekuma West Ursula Owusu-Ekuful has taken a swipe at her colleagues who do not contribute to debates in the lawmaking chamber.

The assertive human rights activist categorically stated “some Members of Parliament are making up the numbers” because they do not add to any discourse in the House which could go a long way in shaping the future of Ghana.

Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, StarrFM

Resign from the Spectator Society

... has become a land of professional spectators.... They don't want to get involved in something that appears to be challenging and that could prove to be costly.

... Bob Larson's Guide to Winning Spiritual Warfare

  • The implied contrast is generally "a spectator as opposed to a participant." This is a very good word choice; +1.
    – Wildcard
    Sep 15 '16 at 22:45

Consider timid.

(adj.) feeling or showing a lack of courage or confidence

Timidity is the noun form.

lack of willingness to assert oneself and take risks

Also, feckless suits your context well.

  1. weak, ineffective

  2. worthless, irresponsible

Fecklessness would be the noun form of this adjective.


  • OP specifies a noun referring to the one not taking action. Sep 15 '16 at 15:33

A bystander is someone who stands by, witnesses a situation, and does not act.

While its denotation is not necessarily a negative qualification, starting in the 20th century post-Holocaust and 21st century with bullying, its connotation often makes it a criticism.

Accomplice can also work. But may be more situational since it is often associated with a physical crime.


Greek philosophers might use the term akrasia in this case. The word akratic might even pass for English.

  • Welcome to EL&U! This has the beginning of a fantastic answer, but needs some more elabouration to perfect it, can you provide a reason why you think the word akrasia would fit here? Sep 15 '16 at 16:14

Stretching your request a bit but another term could be "pessimist".

A pessimist always sees things negatively and rarely willing to try to change them because the world is a terrible place anyways.

Otherwise I really like the "Bystander" one. Seems to fit the best in my opinion.


adjective: pusillanimous

showing a lack of courage or determination; timid.

synonyms: timid, timorous, cowardly, fearful, faint-hearted, lily-livered, spineless, craven, shrinking;

antonyms: brave

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