lily-liv·​ered ˈli-lē-ˈli-vərd How to pronounce lily-livered (audio)
: lacking courage : cowardly

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The basis of the word lily-livered lies in an old belief. Years ago, people thought that health and temperament were the products of a balance or imbalance of four bodily fluids, or humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. It was believed that a deficiency of yellow bile, or choler, the humor that governed anger, spirit, and courage, would leave a person's liver colorless or white. Someone with this deficiency, and so white-livered, would be spiritless and a coward. Lily-livered and white-livered have been used synonymously since the 17th century, but lily-livered is now the more common expression, probably because of its alliteration.

Word History

First Known Use

1605, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of lily-livered was in 1605


Dictionary Entries Near lily-livered

Cite this Entry

“Lily-livered.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 18 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


Word Origin
In the Middle Ages, most of what was thought about the body was based on the theory of humors. Humors were body fluids believed to determine a person's temperament. The humor that was supposed to control anger, spirit, and courage was bile, produced by the liver. A person who lacked courage was believed to have a white liver, because it had no yellow bile to color it. Thus, a cowardly person was called white-livered or, more poetically, lily-livered.
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