What's the origin of yellow-bellied?

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).[/QUOTE}

I don’t know about all the other examples, but the term “yellow journalism” came from the cheap, yellowish paper that many sensationalistic newspapers (we’d call them tabloids today)were printed on.

The Staff Report is What’s the origin of “yellow-bellied”?

Extreme fear can cause a person to urinate (and defecate) involuntarily. Since urine is yellowish, perhaps this contributes to yellow meaning cowardice.

In the novel The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, Captain Queeg is called “Old Yellowstain” behind his back by the officers after he drops a yellow dye marker and takes the Caine out of a combat area a little too soon. IIRC, Wouk mentions the appropriateness of the nickname, making a connection between the yellow dye, cowardice, and urine.

Based on the answer by Dex, are westerns that use the term “yellow bellied” wrong?


Dex Add to you list of books which you should buy for the library, the following: M.M. Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms.

I am posting this as a stop-gap until I can spend the evening searching further.

Mathews cites the term “yellowbelly” meaning “A Mexican” in a contemptuous manner from 1842, 1853, etc.

So, my best guess is, those Westerns might have been right.

Now, whether that term meant “coward” at the time, I don’t know.

Actually, the derivation of “yellow journalism” is more interesting than that. It comes from the Yellow Kid, the first highly popular comic strip character. The Yellow Kid appeared first in Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895 and then also in rival Hearst’s New York Journal. (See the link below for an explanation.) During the no-holds-barred battle between these two papers, they became known as the “Yellow Kid papers” or “yellow papers,” which led to the term yellow journalism. There are quite a number of cites for this on the web, of which this seems to have the most details.

Actually, there is just as much evidence that “yellow journalism” was nothing more than a continuation of the term “yellow cover” which seems to have been applied first in the 1840’s-50’s to cheap,vulgar, sensational novels and books. They actually had yellow covers.

OK, I’m a mathematician, not an etymologist, so I’ll have to concede this one. A quick check in the library showed most references giving the Yellow Kid explanation, but one recent one referring to the earlier yellow cover books. Majority does not necessarily rule on an issue like this.

… which is why I thought a mention would be appropriate, but not a full report on “yellow journalism.” One of the problems with writing Staff Reports is deciding when to add little asides (“yellow journalism,” under any origin story, has little to do with “yellow bellied”) and when to let sleeping yellow dogs lie.

does one with a “yellow streak down his back” qualify for the same meaning as yellow bellied?

What about the yellow-bellied sapsucker? Any connection there?

Certainly a person with “a yellow stripe down his back” would qualify as a coward. I can’t find evidence of such a phrase in print until the 1940’s. It may be much earlier, but Vol.III of Lighter is not yet out. References to a person with a “yellow streak” start in the 1890’s. But in no way do they mean a stripe down the back.

The word “sapsucker,” applied to a type of woodpecker, was first recorded in Lewis and Clark’s journals, 1805. I am still searching for the term “yellow-bellied sapsucker.” I have a feeling it will be in a cartoon from the 1940’s or 50’s.

If the simplest answer is usually the right answer (?) then the reference to yellow as in urine makes most sense. Think about a “yellow bellied dog” as the cowering, shaking, opposite-of-alpha dog leaking urine as it displays its subjugation.

Is it safe to assume the citation of “Brewster’s” in paragraph one is actually Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable?

Yes, pg.

When I was resident in the South some years ago a “yellow- (or yaller-) dog Democrat,” for example, was someone who would vote Democrat if the candidate were a yellow (or yaller) dog, such a dog being considered as common if not (as the answer states) entirely useless. At some risk of raising a more unpleasant use of the word, yellow/yaller was also used, sometimes with the additional adjective “high,” to refer to African-Americans with particularly light complexions. I’d guess the use of yellow there was purely descriptive and doubt there would be any connection with “yellow dog” or “yellow bellied.”

As a further indication of the inscrutability of the Orientals, it is my understanding that yellow was the preferred color of Chinese emperors just as purple was that of Occidental emperors. Obviously, to the historic Chinese, yellow was a color of high prestige and to them the term “yellow-bellied coward” would be an example of the inscrutability of Occidentals. As the saying goes, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”

The term “high yellow” in referring to light-skinned blacks is only in print since 1923, according to Lighter. “High-brown” appears in the same usage in 1915. But, I would suggest that you are right Tom, this has no connection to “yellow” as a term for cowardice. As an aside, the term “yellow” or “yaller” in referring to light-skinned blacks goes back quite some ways. But I can not find any connection to cowerdice.

The reference to “yellow-dog Democrat” is interesting by comes from this century. See here

“by come” is actually “but comes”

It’s getting late.