50 Terms for Fear: Synonyms, Slang, Insults, and Expressions
The other day I was teaching a student and he was wondering what other ways he could say that someone was fearful, or a coward.
This got me thinking: In English, we have a ton of words, slang, and colloquialisms around calling someone cowardly.
As I kept thinking of more and more terms for my student, I thought, “Hey, this would make a great article for the community.” So, here you have it, 50 ways to talk about someone’s cowardice.
As you will see, many of these are words that we might call our siblings or close friends (jokingly of course).
English is very rich, with one of the largest vocabularies of any language. It has developed from a complex history and the influence of many different languages. Be sure to pay attention to the etymology of some of these words.
Remember, a rich vocabulary can greatly increase your perceived fluency, so learn and memorize several of these useful synonyms and your English will be that much more impressive.
34 Ways to Talk about Fear
These terms are listed from most formal to least formal/vulgar
1. Fearful (adj.)
This is one of the most basic ways to talk about someone or something that is easily scared–they are literally full of fear, fearful.
This word is good for use in writing, but not necessarily in conversation, and certainly would not be very insulting.
Not to be confused with fearsome, which is something that causes fear.
2. Cowardly (adj.)
While fearful might be used more to describe someone in a certain situation, cowardly would be more of a character trait–someone who is always easily scared. Therefore, calling someone a coward would be considered an insult.
Some examples of use might be, “Stop being a coward,” or, “You’re a coward,” if your friend is afraid to do something.
3. Soft (adj.)
This is another way to say someone is a coward. It makes perfect sense if you think about the following: They aren’t able to make hard decisions.
This is a bit more informal and colloquial than cowardly, and you might commonly hear the expression, “You’ve gone soft,” meaning someone that was once brave is now acting cowardly (not uncommon with age!).
4. Yellow / Yellow-bellied (adj.)
We love expressions using colors, right? Like blue meaning someone is sad, or green for jealousy, but what could yellow describe? Well, in English, if someone is yellow (or yellow-bellied) they are a coward!
This expression is not as common as it once was, and it gives reminds me of something Clint Eastwood might say in an old western film.
5. Fraidy cat/Scardy cat (n.)
Getting into more contemporarily common expressions, we have these two idioms. If you are older than 12, you probably will not say it, but it’s at least good to understand. This is an expression you might commonly here on the playground or used between young siblings.
Fraidy comes from fraid (afraid), and scardy is obviously derived from scared.
Why a cat? Well, most cats are easily startled–and, as we’ll see, this isn’t the only insult associated with felines.
6. Pansy (n.)
This word is the name of a flower (or formerly a woman). Therefore, if you call a man a pansy the general connotation is that he is weak and effeminate (sorry girls, but many of these words are associated with the female gender being fearful–not our opinion here at RealLife).
Be careful, as nowadays this expression can be extremely offensive when referring to a male homosexual.
7. Wimp (n.)/Wimpy (adj.)
This word was apparently created by college students in the 1960s, but the reason is not exactly known, however, it might refer to a character from the popular Popeye comic.
Calling someone a wimp might not only indicate their cowardice, but also that they are strange or nerdy.
There is also a phrasal verb that you can use, to wimp out. This means to not do something because of fear.
8. Sissy (n./adj.)
This word is derived from sister (sis), and is used to call (especially a man) girly, effeminate and weak.
9. Wuss (n.)/Wussy (adj.)
Wuss or wussy is a euphemism [a nicer, less offensive word] for pussy (see below). It could also be derived from the combination of the words “puss” and “wimp”.
10. Chicken (n./adj.)
In English, we commonly use animal comparisons to describe the attributes of people. If someone is chicken, it means they are a coward. It makes sense, right? Chickens aren’t exactly the bravest of birds like a hawk or an eagle.
Not to be confused with chick, which is slang for a young, often attractive girl.
Like wimp out, you can also use the phrasal verb, “chicken out.” However, chicken out can also mean to back out or renege on a previously agreed deal.
Lastly, if need be, you can make this term more vulgar by saying, “Chickenshit.”
11. Weak (adj.)/Weakling (n.)
Weak is just the opposite of strong, so it makes sense, if someone is weak they are probably easily scared.
Weakling is the noun form and is a synonym of coward.
12. Baby/cry-baby (n.)
This is another common insult (when used in this context). This term you might hear used if someone is complaining, for example, “Don’t be such a (cry-)baby; that didn’t even hurt.”
It might also be used to taunt someone, for example, “Is little baby going to cry?” (especially while rubbing the hands below the eyes in a crying gesture and talking in a condescending tone).
13. With one’s tail between one’s knees (exp.)
This is an expression referring to a dog–when they get scared, they generally put their tail between their legs. So if you have your tail between your legs, you appear frightened or cowardly, or even defeated and humiliated.
We might use this if someone made a bad decision or embarrassing mistake, for example, “He left the audition with his tail between his legs.”
14. Man up (v.)
If someone is acting cowardly, you could use this phrasal verb to help motivate and energize him or her. For example, “Don’t be a wimp, come on, you can do it, man up!”
15. Mama’s boy (n.)
If you call someone a mama’s boy it basically is saying that they need their mother to protect them or they are overly attached to her. This term is somewhat derogatory, but is still fairly common.
16. Girl (n.)/girly (adj.)
This is another rather sexist term, however it is not uncommon. One might say, for example, “Don’t be such a girl,” or “Stop being a little girl and do it.”
17. Grow a pair (of balls) (exp.)
Getting into vulgar terms, this is commonly used to motivate someone (male or female) to stop being a coward and take action. It literally infers that having testicles (that is, being a man, or being masculine) denotes bravery, so if you grow some, you’ll stop acting like a wimp. This can obviously be very offensive said to either a man (referring that he doesn’t have balls) or a woman.
Here’s an example: “Just grow a pair and ask her out already!”
Lily Allen comically makes fun of this chauvinistic expression in her song Hard Out Here, saying, “Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits” meaning that women require more bravery than men, so grow a pair of breasts is more fitting than grow a pair of testicles.
18. Pussy (n)
Remember before I said that there are more terms referring to cats? Well the vulgar term pussy originally means a kitten [baby cat], however you will hardly ever hear it used to actually talk about a cat.
Nowadays, this term almost always refers to the vagina. Therefore, using it as an insult would be equivalent to calling someone effeminate. One could argue that it’s especially offensive for men, but this insult can equally be used for women.
A common collocation would be, “Don’t be a pussy.”
16 more terms for fear
- Afraid (adj): A synonym of fearful of French origin. Formal and can be used in any context.
- Below the belt (adj.): In a fight, it would be literally hitting someone where they are most sensitive, but it can be used figuratively for any unsportsmanlike action done out of fear (the collocation would be, “That was below the belt”).
- Craven (adj/n): is a bit of a dated term, derived from French (meaning burst, die). It is commonly used in medieval settings, for example in the Game of Thrones series and books.
- Cream puff (n) is a pastry filled with custard or whipped cream. Used as an insult, it denotes effeminacy.
- Faint-of-heart (n)/ fainthearted (adj): Someone who does not have a strong heart and is easily scared. Often heard as a collocation for stories or movies, for example, “Warning: This story is not for the faint-of-heart.”
- Good-for-nothing (adj.): Someone who is so chicken that they are useless.
- Gutless (n.): Having guts (organs) is generally used as a term of endearment for someone who is brave, so not having them refers to one’s cowardice.
- Lily-livered (adj.) is a term coined by Shakespeare. A healthy liver is usually reddish-brown (because it’s full of blood), so a pale, lily-colored liver would be lacking blood and therefore unhealthy, making the possessor weak.
- Loser (n): The opposite of winner. It used to be common to say this while making the shape of an L with one’s finger and thumb over one’s forehead.
- Pigeon-hearted (adj): Similar to chicken, another fearful bird.
- Pushover (n): Someone (or something) that is easily dominated or influenced. Literally someone who is easy to push over.
- Spineless (adj): Literally without one’s main supporting backbone. It makes sense if you think that most invertebrates are easily scared.
- Submissive (adj.): Someone who is easily influenced, or below other people. Not alpha.
- Unmanly (adj.) is another sexist term, meaning that one is effeminate.
- Weak-kneed (adj.) / weak at the knees is quite literal–imagine, if you are very scared your knees might get weak and begin to shake.
- Worm (n): Another term referring to an animal, this might be a common insult used by a drill-sergeant in the army.
Which of these terms is your favorite? Did we forget any words that you like? Comment below!
Oh!! I never thought that the word Sissy is in English too because we use this word in Egypt as well which has exactly the same meaning 😮
Thanks a lot Ethan.
[…] Pussy – another more common word for vagina. Also a way of calling someone weak. […]
Craven is another word for coward
Pussy has no relation to feminizing a man. It is often used to refer to someone has weak or cowardly.
That’s true, Darrious! Good point!
Strongly agreed with you, Darrious.
This is really interesting though they’re not supposed to be used by everyone publicly for the daily English communication.
Yes, you’re right. SAome terms are netter to use in formal situations and other among close friends. Thank you for reading!
“Snowflake” is the new term for “wimp”
Good to know! Thanks, Rick!
Therefore is written with an E at the end! ☺️🤭. My small contribution…
Thank you for your contribution, Claudia!
Pussy doesn’t come from cats, but from the word pusillanimous, which is a synonym of fearful.