Dear Straight Dope:
Where did the expression "yellow-bellied" come from? I've heard it used in the expression, "yellow-bellied coward." I can't for the life of me think why having a yellow belly would make you a coward.
Oh, come on. If I woke up with a yellow belly one morning (jaundice?), I would definitely be in a tremulous mood. But there’s more to it than that. The color yellow has traditionally been associated with cowardice, treachery, inconstancy and jealousy. Brewsters says that in France, the doors of traitors’ houses were daubed with yellow. The medieval yellow star (continued by the Nazis) branded Jews as having “betrayed Jesus.” In medieval paintings, Judas Iscariot (ultimate symbol of treason) is portrayed wearing yellow garments. In Spain, victims of the Inquisition wore yellow, to imply they were guilty of heresy and treason. On the American frontier in the early 1800s, a “yellow-dog” was anything worthless.
The combination of yellow (cowardly, treacherous) with the belly or guts (stamina, grit, heroism) seems pretty obvious. A person with guts is a person with courage. The combination yellow-bellied was thus a double way of saying the person had no courage. That usage first appeared around 1925 in the U.S.
But why yellow? It’s not an easy derivation to trace. Slightly before the appearance of "yellow-bellied," Asians were the “yellow” race and the term “yellow peril” was used to refer to the insidious Asian "threat" (with the implicit connotation of treachery and deceit) from the 1890s through 1910. But no source suggests any connection between these terms and “yellow-bellied,” other than the common use of the word yellow to imply deceit. So it is unlikely that yellow-bellied has racist undertones.
A more plausible source is the medieval theory of medicine that assumed there were four humors (fluids) in the body. These determined the physical and mental condition of the person. If they got out of balance, you got sick or went crackers. The four humors were blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Yellow bile (choler from the Greek kholos for gall) made you peevish, choleric, irascible. The disease cholera got its name from the symptom of, ah, yellowish diarrhea. From there to yellow as symbol of jealousy and inconstancy was a pretty easy step.
Yellow and yellow-bellied haven’t always had a negative connotation. An earlier and completely different use of “yellow-bellies” apparently first arose in England as a humorous reference to residents of Lincolnshire, without the connotation of cowardly, as far as I can tell. The regimental flag had a yellow background, and frogs found in the fens were in fact yellow-bellied, so we find the term in print around 1796. It was a word like redcoats, meant as descriptive and humorous, slightly ridiculing. In the 1890s yellow-bellied was used in a literal sense to indicate fish, such as sole and flounder, that have light-colored undersides.
Other uses of yellow include the yellow flag as a symbol of quarantine, intended to isolate victims of yellow fever. And of course, yellow journalism dates from 1895, implying newspapers that used scare headlines, sensationalism, and lavish illustrations to attract readers in a very competitive environment (between William Randolph Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s World).
So there you have it. Something of a puzzle. Yellow, the color of the sun, flowers, etc., is generally considered cheerful and upbeat. Blondes have more fun, right? But when used metaphorically, more often than not, it means something bad.
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