Would an average reader know what "pusillanimous" means? That would be the kind of word I'm looking for if anyone would - it sounds more distant than "cowardly". "Cowardly" sounds like you have a personal vendetta against the person/deed you're referring to. I'm trying to avoid that.

The situation is this: someone is anonymously attacking someone I know, and will not reveal him/herself or back down from attacking, and I want to find a good way to describe such activity, without sounding personally irritated. Not necessarily professional or dignified, but something similar.

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    What did your own research in dictionaries and thesauruses leave unclear, please? Despite what many dictionaries do say, I've never seen "pusillanimous" used for anything but "ineffectual" which i very different. Either way if "cowardly" sounds like you have a personal vendetta that's because of your context, not the word's meaning. Getting much less relevant, isn't it true that the only reason you're getting involved is that you are, precisely, personally irritated? Sep 1, 2018 at 20:37

8 Answers 8


Sounds like a case for understatement for ironic effect, such as "less than forthright"

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    +1 That's what Winston Churchill would have done - he once described a lie as a 'terminological inexactitude' to avoid censure in the House of Commons. Sep 11, 2013 at 15:23
  • I like this approach, although I often read ironic understatement as a sign of irritation, which is something the OP wanted to avoid. Of course, it sounds a lot more polite than "cowardly"!
    – Vectornaut
    Jul 1, 2014 at 10:09

I don't think using pusillanimous would be understood by most readers, and using the word can make you seem pretentious (which may or may not be your intention).

To describe the actions taken by this other person, you might say that they are hiding behind anonymity in order to make these attacks. It is not a single word, but it tends not to be completely accusatory while still describing their actions.

  • More than one word is fine. This seems to be a good suggestion.
    – Myself
    Aug 24, 2011 at 23:41
  • What? The intension of pretension?
    – GEdgar
    Aug 25, 2011 at 12:27
  • Those who have seen the movie Wizard of Oz may know the meaning of pusillanimous!
    – GEdgar
    Nov 25, 2011 at 2:04

A number of alternatives are suggested here, including faint-hearted, scared, spineless, base, weak, shrinking, fearful, craven, dastardly, timorous and pusillanimous (as already suggested).

It can't really be said that any of these avoids a hint of name-calling, and, depending on the nature of the attack, perhaps shrinking, weak, scared, and timorous could be ruled out. I personally would be inclined to go with craven, although that might sound a little archaic.


In Lois McMaster Bujold's sci-fi Vorkosigan series, the culture of the planet Barrayar features a warrior class whose members might challenge someone to a duel upon an insult having to do with cowardice. In this vein, she wrote one character as accusing another of "excessive caution".

It had a nice Churchillian ring to it.


Good heavens -- if this isn't the right occasion for a good old no-holds-barred, fist-swinging, jaw-smacking ad hominem tirade of invective, I don't know what would be.

Your friend's antagonist is clearly not just a deplorably cringing poltroon: he is also a shifty, craven, gutless, yellow-bellied, chicken-livered, nutsack-lacking, slimy specimen of feeble-hearted sissydom and boot-quaking milksop vacillation. I piss on his grovelling, degenerate, turd-licking, namby-pamby, niminy-piminy, twig-quiveringly spiritless soul!

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    Ttitle says "that doesn't sounds like name-calling?..." Oct 3, 2014 at 20:10
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    @MichaelDurrant - Oh dear. My bad.
    – Erik Kowal
    Oct 3, 2014 at 20:22

The Economist has used the word pusillanimous at least twice in the last year or so, if this is a guide to its use in english writing.

I noticed because I had to look it up the first time.


If these anonymous attacks happen on the internet, then the correct way to address this person is "anonymous coward". Not used as a description, but like a name. "Anonymous coward made a lot of nasty accusations, but didn't show the slightest evidence. "


At first I thought timid, but no, that still has some negative context. So how about:


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