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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.
As an opposite of an action or trait that many existing and formerly extant cultures demand, cowardice rates as a character flaw that many societies and their representatives stigmatize and/or punish.
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 or cowed. 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.
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.