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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: pusillanimous

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


Not everyone has the fortitude to rise up to a difficult situation; many, in fact, shrink from the occasion. Those who are particularly averse to conflict you may want to call pusillanimous (pronounced pyoo-suh-LAN-uh-mus), “deficient in courage or resolution,” contemptibly timid.”

It is not a term of admiration, and you will usually encounter it in polemic.

Latin, you may guess, provides the word: from pusillus, “very small,” a diminutive of pusus, “boy,” and animus, “spirit.”

Merriam-Webster cautions that “despite what you may have heard, pusillanimous does not serve as the basis for pussyfoot, pussycat, or a certain related vulgarism.”

Example: From “Nation’s Capital in Eclipse as Pride and Power Slip Away” by David Broder, Washington Post, 1990: “Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), who has been in Congress more than 40 years, agreed that ‘we bankrupted the country for the sake of the rich with the 1981 tax bill’ and Congress is ‘too pusillanimous’ to correct it.”

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