Friday 8 January 2010


All things have their seasons and all things move in cycles and circuits. Every month brings a full moon (though this month it was blue), every year brings its snow (mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?) and every couple of months brings an attempt by the constipated Labour Party to force out Gordon Brown .

One of these seasonal wonders of nature occurred the day before yesterday. It followed its usual pattern. The conspirators (those who breathe together) sent a letter. Then a dribble of non-conspirators appeared on the TV and radio saying that the conspirators should not have sent a letter. One of them called the conspirators "cowardly". I heard her say so on the radio.

Now I can see thinking that such epistolary betrayal was wrong. But I can't for the life of me see how it could have been cowardly. The same goes for throwing hamsters at walls (a habit that I have almost kicked). This from that deep well of truth The Daily Mirror:

A student who killed a hamster by throwing it against a wall was branded "cowardly".

Harry Clay, 19, hurled the pet in the air, let it drop to the floor then chucked it against a wall before binning it.

Jan Edwards, of the RSPCA, called Clay's actions "disturbing".

She added: "He ended its life in the most cowardly way by throwing it against a wall, as if it was nothing more than a snowball."

English is, by most reckonings, the largest language in the world and the words of moral condemnation it contains are pretty much innumerable. Cruel, evil, sadistic, despicable, contemptible, disgusting, unforgivable, shameworthy, mean, unconscionable, immoral, unethical, malicious, malevolent, spiteful, heartless, callous, sick, twisted, ruthless etc etc etc.

But unless one hurled the hamster at the wall out of fear (perhaps you were frightened of the wall and wanted it to stay back) I don't see that it can possibly be cowardly. "Cowardly attacks" seem ubiquitous because of a foolish desire to drag in an accusation of weakness where one of wrongness would do just as well.

Like most misplaced accusations this presents the problem that if Jan Edwards of the RSPCA is upset because of the cowardice of the attack, the implication is that she wouldn't mind if the student had ended the hamsters's life in the most courageous way, perhaps by jumping into the big cat enclosure at London Zoo and shoving it up a tiger's arse. (There may be braver ways of killing a hamster but I can't think of one off hand. Maybe a Deerhunter-style game of Russian roulette).

Cowardly means running away. Etymologically it means possessing a tail (and has nothing to do with cower, which comes from kuren meaning to lie in wait). A cowardly attack is pretty much an oxymoron. One could, I confess, use a cowardly method of attack, but utter inaction would still be the more cowardly choice. True cowardice requires flight. Only if one attacked due to a greater fear of something else (if I said I'd attack you if you didn't attack the hamster) could the attack really be cowardly. As for suggesting that Gordon Brown might not be the best prime minister ever: that's not cowardly, it's Just Plain Wrong.

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