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Lily livered, discombobulated, doze (off), slack off/slacker

Created date

August 14th, 2015

Lily livered

If you call someone “lily livered,” you’re saying that he or she is a coward. The term is most closely associated with cheesy lines from Western films, especially when a drunken cowpoke feels compelled to challenge another to a “shootin’ match at high noon.”  

But the term actually dates back to early seventeenth century England, where it was commonly believed that the liver was the source of one’s courage. The more blood you had flowing through your liver, the more courageous you were thought to be. In other words, if you were a coward, you clearly had a circulatory problem, at least in your liver—hence the reference to the pale-colored flower.

“Who you callin’ a cheat, you lily-livered varmint?”


Normally, when you ask us “Where’d that phrase come from?” we’re able to give you the story behind the origin and meaning of the word or phrase in question. Recently, someone asked for the story behind “discombobulated,” so as usual, here’s an answer: there isn’t one.

Simply put, the word discombobulated has no etymological basis. It’s a nonsense word that originated in the nineteenth century, and its meaning comes from its sheer absurdity. By definition, discombobulated refers to a state or condition of total confusion and disarray. Say it out loud. Its sound is the perfect embodiment of its meaning.

“My father started playing with the settings on his computer, so now his operating system is all discombobulated.”

Doze (off)

Let’s admit it. We’ve all dozed off, and usually when it was least appropriate to do so. Think back to school, for instance: was it algebra, English, chemistry? Boredom is probably the single most common reason for dozing off. But where did we get the word “doze”?

You can thank the Scandinavians. First used in the late 1600s, our word “doze” is an adaptation of “dusa,” an Old Norse term with the same meaning—to nod off.

“I dozed off listening to another of his droning lectures.”

Slack off/slacker

If you’ve ever seen the movie Back to the Future, you’ve surely heard this phrase before. “You’re a slacker, McFly!” 

When a slacker “slacks off,” he or she has failed to do his or her job or meet certain responsibilities—in short, such people are lazy and unreliable. 

The term started as maritime slang. When a crew of seamen hauled lines on a ship, the line would stay taught so long as each man did his job. If, however, the line dipped or “slacked off” at some point, it meant that somebody wasn’t keeping up with the rest of the crew. He was a slacker. 

“My high school principal despised slackers and always kept an eye out for them.”