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Cowardice is a trait wherein fear and excess self-concern override doing or saying what is right, good and of help to others or oneself in a time of need—it is the opposite of courage. As a label, "cowardice" indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge.
“Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.” - Mahatma Gandhi
Under many military codes of justice, cowardice in combat is a crime punishable by death (e.g. shot at dawn). The term describes a character flaw which has been shunned and disdained (see norms) within most, if not all cultures, whilst courage, typically viewed as a virtue, is admired and encouraged[who?].
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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word coward came into English from the Old French word coart (modern French couard), a combination of the word for "tail" (Modern French queue, Latin cauda) and an agent noun suffix. It would therefore have meant "one with a tail" — perhaps from the habit of animals displaying their tails in flight ("turning tail"), or from a dog's habit of putting its tail between its legs when it is afraid.. Like many other English words of French origin, this word was introduced in the English language by the French-speaking Normans, after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
Military law 
Acts of cowardice have long been punishable by military law, which defines a wide range of cowardly offenses including desertion in face of the enemy and surrendering to the enemy against orders. The punishment for such acts is typically severe, ranging from corporal punishment to the death sentence. Cowardly conduct is specifically mentioned within the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice.
See also 
- Dictionary.com: "[the] lack of courage to face danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc." http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cowardice :
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