I was recently reviewing the meaning of the word "craven," which included trying to find some good examples of its usage. More often than not, I came across the phrases, "craven desires" and "craven idols," neither of which seem to be using the definitions I find for "craven." I am assuming that the word "craven" in these instances is acting more like a participle of some sort for the verb "to crave," but, thus far, I have not found any dictionary entry that alludes to this. For phrases so common as "craven desires" and "craven idols" why do I not see some mention made of this?


Well, there's at least one decent answer in this thread that I will award the green checkmark to if no others surface, so I don't know how necessary this is at this point. However, since I felt my initial question was sufficient and sense that others will, too, I will elaborate a bit to explain why I am adding to my original question. First of all, I am really quite shocked that so many have never heard of the phrase "craven idol(s)" before. (See comments below.) I will wholeheartedly admit that I was unaware that it was a rock band and I did have to do some major revisions to my search parameters to finally get something that wasn't about that band. Nevertheless, in my defense, I had heard or seen the phrase "craven idols" so long ago that I couldn't even tell you when it became part of my memory bank. Not considering myself all that "well read," I was surprised to see that so many in this alleged erudite forum would be so dumbfounded by the phrase "craven idol." But to suffice the skepticism of those below, what follows are some examples of the written word and its use of the phrase "craven idol(s)." [I won't bother adding examples of "craven desires" because someone already took the time and trouble to do so (see the answers below)]. Examples of craven idol and/or craven idols follow:

"Saint Paul makes the law of nature the basis for his claim that God can legitimately punish those who violate its precepts and inclinations. He especially condemns the pagan practice of idol worship — of making God into the image of mortals, birds, and snakes. Saint Paul is not referring to people who find themselves ignorant about the true God. He addresses those whose personal wickedness compels them to reduce God to a craven idol."

Source: Praying with Saint Paul: Daily Reflections on the Letters of Saint Paul

"Garrett, damned to hell as he could well see, knew now, much to his horror, that Vanra's loyalty had been easily purchased. The bodyguard's honour was swayed by gold alone and, alas, Garratt's reliance on the mere honour of the soldiering brotherhood could never topple that craven idol of greed."

Source: Shadows Beneath the Watch Tower

"In some universities, lecturers fearful of sparking a suicide refuse to fail even the poorest students. "I often think of the implications for the student and the family before failing anyone," says one professor at Sogang University. But Korean students and their families, whose faith in the omnipotent powers of education is greater than in any other Confucian country in Asia, are worshipping a craven idol. If anyone takes too close a look at the system, they will be in for a rude awakening."

Source: Korea Economic Report, Vol. 8, p. 36

I see I still haven't added an example of "craven idols" yet, so here's one more. For the record, there were several I could have chosen. I suppose this is as good as any:

"These 'evil men who had been used to milking the villagers for years by parading bronze peacocks and other such craven idols among the villages and thus collecting large sums for their own use' had to be put down."

Source: The Well-protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876-1909

  • 1
    Can you quote and link to some examples? I only find those terms as the names of a blogger and a heavy metal band, respectively (plus one article about a town in England named Craven); in other words, as nonsensical strings of words chosen for sound, rather than because they actually mean anything.
    – 1006a
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 20:38
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    Is no one going to mention the phrase that OP actually heard was graven idols?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 22:03
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    @1006a: on craven desire, use a minus sign (-bull, -pitbull, -Yorkshire) to eliminate false hits or use an NGram and follow those links.
    – KarlG
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 22:50
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    @KarlG That's good advice—for the OP. If this is a real usage, it's the OP's responsibility to include evidence of that in the question.
    – 1006a
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 23:05
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    It's really really stupid and small-minded that anyone should downvote a question that "now" has references and sources. I checked each link, and each one is valid. Don't like the question? Move along. Downvote Qs if they are low quality and do not share any research. This is not an example of a LQQ.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 13:56

3 Answers 3


The Desires

The standard dictionary definition of craven is "cowardly":

This could be illustrated through Ancient History in the conduct of Ephialtes, the "Judas Iscariot" of Greece, who in satisfying his craven desires, brought untold misery to his fellow patriots by his treachery... Henry Germanus Maeder, Educational Outcomes Unique to Ancient History, 1927

Ephialtes betrayed the united Greek forces to the Persians at Thermopylæ in hope of gain, his craven, i.e. cowardly desires. Greed in itself is not always cowardly, but accepting payment for betrayal, as Judas Iscariot, may certainly be deemed so.

In other usages, however, moral failings other than cowardice seem to be on the author's mind: craven desires are base, often debauched, and in the fiery rhetoric of Christian moralists, a grievous sin. For those wanting to perfume their otherwise wanting prose with a whiff of scandal, the word may equally serve.

They laugh and dance, indulge and spend, and find some satisfaction in pursuing thrill, excitement, danger, popular acclaim, and material security. They follow their selfish instincts or yield to their craven desires. Leslie F. Brandt, Jesus/Now, 1978.

Your religious training may have taught you that the body is a repository of base instincts and desires that must be repressed, ignored and squelched, lest you accede to your craven desires and spend eternity regretting the decision! Ramón Stevens, Whatever Happened to Divine Grace, 1988.

And now for someone apparently ready to chuck it all for (shudder!) one night of pleasure:

She entered the living room in a most charming negligee. She had never interested me sexually in all the years I had known her — somehow I had never thought of her in that way. She had always been on a pedestal above all such craven desires. Her seductive negligee plus the liquor was sufficient for me to discover charms never before unfolded. William Ward Smith, A Letter from my Father, 1976.

This isn't cowardice; it's sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. How lexicographers have missed this usage is beyond me, but only Superman-sized conceptual leaps can get to cowardice from charming, seductive negligees.

Craven Desire in the Singular

Craven desires can just as easily be condemned in the singular, where the distance from the original meaning of "cowering, cowardly" is even more apparent. Occasionally, the familiar moral tone of the plural is still heard. Thus paraphrasing the Buddha:

the craven desire is the root of all suffering

And a Christian writer in an imaginary conversation with Hieronymus Bosch:

...the craven desire is for immediate gratification. It uses the other person, or thing, or even God, to meet this consummation of desire.

This suggests a meaning of inordinate, selfish desire, or, in a word, lust, which can be described negatively in countless scenarios without audible religious overtones. Thus a craven desire

for power, again here, for media attention, attention and power, money, to stay in power, for publicity, to be liked, to seem young, purely for commercial purposes (Hannah Montana), to be provocative (Rolling Stones), or to be on television (reality stars).

One writer turns to Norman Mailer for a critique of the media in the run-up to the Second Gulf War:

In an effort to analyze our wanton and exuberant Iraq war-lust, Mailer points to our craven desire for manipulated and televised displays of dominance as a major factor for the drive to the military invasion of Baghdad.

A journalist takes a look at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and

the Germans' craven desire to paint a sanitized picture of their society to a skeptical world.

While craven is never completely free of opprobrium, there are cases where the desire is neither overwhelming nor morally suspect, merely very strong. Thus a business has a craven desire to win over consumers or fill a niche market, and the director of the film Benjamin Button has a craven desire to elicit emotion.

One writer suggests that US senators' reluctance to use email comes from their craven desire to avoid record-keeping, while the Far Right in the US has a craven desire for academic acceptance.

Finally, a self-designated perfectionist has a "craven desire to do everything perfectly the first time" and a woman in India describes humorously her craven desire for a Michael Kors handbag.

No stretch of the imagination can inject cowardice into any of these usages of craven.

The Idols

Craven idol received no hits in a Google NGram; a collocation search only yielded results such as fear/fears, unambiguously in the sense of 'cowardly.' Since Craven Idol is also the name of a heavy metal band, googling becomes a frustrating exercise in using the minus sign. What non-metalic results appear, however, suggest that the band is not using a nonce word for its name.

A Time Magazine review (31 Mar 1961) of a decidedly anti-modernist book by Robert Elliot Fitch, Dean of the Pacific School of Religion, is entitled The Craven Idol.

The Golden Calf of the Exodus saga is craven:

But there in that wilderness/ before the craven idol/ before the king demanding to be god/ Refusing to bow, to deny the creator/ honoring the words written so long ago/ Prepared to be burned, to submit to the furnace/ entering in, faithful to God. Raymond A. Foss, The First Commandment, 2009.

God was about to destroy the children of Israel because of their craven idol that [they] had made and also because of Aaron's sin. Erica Michael, Birthing His Glory Through Dance, Part 1, 2010.

Foss also alludes to the statue of the Roman emperor to which Christians were to pay homage or suffer punishment.

In The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Revised and Expanded, 2012, author Dave Hickey describes a painting of Jesus, which

... thanks to oil glazing, seems an uncanny incarnation of Christ? Is it a picture, an icon, a craven idol, or something else?

A four-item catalogue such as this is the last place one would expect an affect-laden or polemic adjective, though idol is the only noun that gets any adjective at all. Whatever the intentions of the author, pausing in the middle of a list to comment on the "cowardly" nature of a cultic statue is not likely to be among them.

Almost all of these uses of craven, whether collocated with desires or idol, come from literature with an overtly religious stance, or certainly a moral one.

For the prophet Habakkuk (2.18), graven or molten images are made from human hands: they are "dumb," inert stone or metal incapable of speech. In 1 Cor. 12.2, they are merely "dumb idols." It would be difficult to imagine a writer of devotional literature ascribing any affect at all to an idol, even a negative one such as cowardice.

The Dilemma

Craven desires and craven idol seem to inhabit the same Christian moral and polemic universe, yet the usual definition of craven as "cowardly" is a poor fit for either. A meaning of "depraved, debauched" might work for desires, but not for idols. Try as I might, I can only see the use of craven for idols as a strange variant of graven, even by those intimate with the latter term from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.

The parallel of bronze peacocks and craven idols in the Ottoman history would suggest an adjective equally parallel to bronze, and none of the sources for craven idol would suffer in the least were graven used in its stead.

The use of the singular diverges just as strongly from dictionary entries, yet it's clear that the word craven is being used in ways other than that prescribed. Perhaps craven suggests to some speakers an excessive craving for most any desired object, which can be acknowledged but not necessarily condemned. The disparity between living language and lexicography for this word, however, remains an intriguing dilemma.

  • Appreciate the time/effort you put into this answer. All things considered, you may walk away with the green checkmark. The best part of your answer, to me, however, is when you acknowledge that it is something of a mystery how lexicographers missed this usage. Perhaps they are too busy adding new words like "selfie-stick" to the dictionary. I'm holding out for someone who might be able to address that aspect a bit more thoroughly. (If that's you even better!) If not, you certainly have answered the question best. But considering the question has been put on hold, somewhat of a moot point.
    – Lisa Beck
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 13:04
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    @LisaBeck: Three users, including me, have voted to reopen the question. Only two more are required. I only knew this word in its "fire and brimstone" sense and was surprised that wasn't reflected in dictionaries.
    – KarlG
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 13:27
  • There are many more hits on the internet for 'secret desires'. These may be collocations, but they are transparent and hardly more than adjective + noun strings. Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 13:35
  • @EdwinAshworth: The point is about the lexical disparity between dictionary definitions and actual usage, at least for me. Why should "many more hits for 'secret desires'" be more relevant here than more for "potato salad"?
    – KarlG
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 13:47
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    @Lambie: I assumed it was so obvious I didn't need to mention it. In the traditions with which I'm most familiar (Lutheran, Catholic), that verse is still part of the First Commandment. But this is part of the dilemma, why would someone use the word craven in a poem about the First Commandment no matter where the verses are divided, when the word graven is right in front of his nose?
    – KarlG
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 21:01

Sorry, you're all out to lunch. The idols are graven (carved) not craven. Misheard, misspelled, misused....please do not ever write craven idols. The rock band's name was clearly a joke, which apparently nobody gets.. I feel sorry for the word craven, now used to mean corrupt although for centuries it had a plain meaning: cowardly, weak and slavish. And now this! Pls see Exodus 20 4-6 for the graven images.


They mean desires and idols that are craven (contemptibly lacking in courage; cowardly). Idols are not actually alive, so any "desires" they have can be described as craven. Also, Craven Idol is the name of a rock band; and pretty much anything goes when it comes to names; they don't have to "make sense" or be common phrases (examples: Smashing Pumpkins, Goo Goo Dolls, Mr. Mister, Limp Bizkit; your mileage may vary; and I am not knocking any of the named bands).

The same can be said of "craven desires," and the good old Guardian has made a pun on the phrase in its article:

Craven desires: why living in the Yorkshire Dales makes you happy

Here, Craven is apparently "a local government district of North Yorkshire." But the people of Craven, or perhaps Craven itself, can have desires. Perhaps this is a reference to the other Craven Desires that is on the internet, which seems to be some kind of controversial blogger.

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