What Does Yellow Belly Mean?

Yellow Belly Meaning

Definition: Coward.

Origin of Yellow Belly

This idiom originated in England as a nickname for people from the Lincolnshire Fens. This area of England is marshy, and contains eels. People say that both the eels and the people have yellow bellies.

The term is found in Francis Grose’s 1787 A provincial glossary; with a collection of local proverbs etc.

  • Yellow bellies. This is an appellation given to persons born in the Fens, who, it is jocularly said, have yellow bellies, like their eels.

However, this original use may not be connected to the American usage. It first appeared in print in the United States in the year 1842, in The Wisconsin Enquirer.

  • We learn from Capt. Wright, of the N. York, that it is the intention of the Texans to “keep dark” until the Mexicans cross the Colorado, and then give them a San Jacinto fight, with an army from 5000 to 7000 men. God send that they may bayonet every “yellow belly” in the Mexican army.

It is not clear what literal connection, if any, there is between yellow bellies and cowards. The color yellow has long been associated with cowardice, and perhaps yellow bellow refers to the way some animals roll over and play dead when they give up.

Examples of Yellow Belly

yellow belly cowardIn the dialogue below, two men use the idiom while discussing a dangerous situation unfolding inside their house.

Robert: What did your cat just bring into the house?

Marty: I’m not sure. She sometimes catches small animals while hunting and brings them to me. I think she means it in an affectionate way.

Robert: That’s disgusting. I think she caught a bat!

Marty: Don’t worry. I’ll grab a plastic bag and throw it out.

Robert: It’s alive! It’s moving! It’s flying! Run away! Run away!

Marty: Where are you going? Come back here and help me catch this bat you yellow bellied coward! I can’t catch it all on my own!

Robert: No way, I’m not trying to contract rabies. You and your cat are on your own on this one!

define yellow bellyThe second dialogue shows two students talking about the test they just took.

Josh: You know what? I think the professor graded both of our tests wrong. Look at this question. I think we deserve more points.

Jeff: Really? I don’t know. It looks like the right grade to me.

Josh: No, I’m pretty sure that she would give us more points if you just asked. Go up and ask her before she leaves.

Jeff: I don’t want to ask her. You ask her.

Josh: Why? Are you scared? I always knew you were a yellow belly.

Jeff: Wow! You’re such a hypocrite.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an opinion piece. The author wants readers to listen to a conservative talk radio host and accuses those who don’t of being scared to do so.

  • Now let me tell you the real answer: You’re a lowdown, yellow-bellied, lily-livered intellectual coward. You’re terrified of finding out he makes more sense than you do. –LA Times

This excerpt is about white athletes insulting a black athlete on the baseball field. Another player accused them of being craven because at that time there were many laws limiting what black Americans could say and do.

  • This time, it drew a response from Robinson’s teammates. Stanky shouted at Chapman from across the field, “Listen, you yellow-bellied cowards, why don’t you yell at somebody who can answer back?” Even Walker, an Alabama resident who was good friends with Chapman, was upset enough to tell his pal he had gone too far. –Sports Illustrated


Yellow belly describes a cowardly person.