craven

When I was a child, and there were cigarette vending machines in various places, one of the names I saw on them (along with Players and du Maurier) was Craven A. If you were cravin’ a cigarette, you might well buy a pack of those. It seemed to me an odd name for cigarettes, like a name for a bird perhaps (a bird kicking the habit? “Quoth the craven, ‘Nevermore’”) or an large cave (a cavernous one, in fact). The v in the word could make a person think of a V-neck sweater, perhaps with a cravat tucked into it.

When I first saw the word craven as an adjective, it naturally made me think of the cigarettes. I knew that it didn’t refer to them – more to some cringing person craving protection – but once I learned its meaning it did make me wonder why anyone would name cigarettes for cowardice.

It turns out that the cigarettes are named after the Third Earl of Craven. The earl in turn is so named because the surname of the First Earl of Craven was Craven, and that surname comes from a place in West Yorkshire, which seems to have come from a Celtic word meaning ‘garlic’. The cigarettes do not taste of garlic, I assume, but I am sure they leave a more lasting scent in room, on clothes, and in breath.

But while the cigarettes are not afraid of being smoked, craven people are. Smoked, or beaten, or crushed. A craven was originally someone who was defeated, utterly crushed, and who admitted being crushed; it likely comes from an old French word meaning ‘crush’ (compare modern French crevé ‘burst, worn out’; it is only coincidence that it is reminiscent of vaincre ‘defeat, vanquish’). It thence signified a fearful, pusillanimous person, one who cries out and cringes. And so it came to mean a coward, self-confessed or at least known as such. (Coward, by the way, is another English surname that does not mean what it looks like it means; its original bearers were cowherds.)

There will ever be those who shrink from the slightest shadow. There will also be those who are always craving attention but cannot stand scrutiny, who seek glory but seek it behind a cover. We should be wary of such craven images… If once we cave in to them, if we mistake craven voracity for veracity, we must learn to say “Nevermore,” lest we let ourselves in for such horrors as the craven avoid (or Wes Craven creates).

3 responses to “craven

  1. Very interesting etymology.

    Anand🙂

  2. Phew … thank goodness I no longer smoke! ( And I never smoked this brand either!)

  3. Daniel E. Trujillo Medina.

    Well, that explains why there is a character named Lord Coward in the film Sherlock Holmes. Up until this very moment I had been baffled by the name. On the other hand, I am also surprised by craven. I suppose it has a taste of creeping or crawling as in fear of being spotted. Come to think of it, craven does taste of fear and hiding. That’s why I love this blog.

    Daniel E. Trujillo M. @VolcadoDePila ________________________________

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