Yellow belly

Definition: A coward

Example: Maurice proved to be a yellow-belly when the mouse appeared and he ran from the room screaming.


Yellow-belly, in its current meaning, is a wholly American introduction to the English language.

The term did exist previously in UK English, but with a totally different meaning. It was an insulting term for the poor folk that lived in the marshy Fens of Lincolnshire. It is not clear why. Some say it may have been due to the general waxen complexion of those people. After all, living in a swamp is not the healthiest of places. Others think it may have been a deeper insult, comparing the peoples’ bellies to the bellies of eels, a staple food at the time.

Another tale comes from the ancient Gaelic sport of ‘hurling’, a combination of football, hockey. rugby, and just about everything else in-between. In the late 1500s, the team from Wexford played Cornwall with yellow cloths tied about their waists. They came to be known as the Yellowbellies. To this day, the Wexford side is still named that, and have traded the cloths for yellow jerseys. There are no indications that the players were anything but perfect gentlemen. No reports of cowardice here!

For that, we must cross the Atlantic. And to some good old fashioned racism. It seems that the phrase came into usage in the mid-1800s  during the Mexican-American War, to describe Mexican soldiers. It is as unclear why the colour yellow was chosen. Whatever the reason, it was unlikely to be a good one. Perhaps a reference to skin colour. Perhaps, like the eels in Lincolnshire, a reference to the bellies of snakes and lizards.

It was Hollywood Westerns that really cemented the term, and its meaning of cowardice. Hardly a movie passed without the calling out of a ‘yellow-bellied varmint‘.

Iddy’s not sure if yellow suits him.

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