I’m bringing back a little feature called “Word of the Night”. Bascially, I take Dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day” and discuss it’s relevance in my pop culture wheelhouse: sci-fi, action thrillers and suspense. Think of it as Vocabulary 101 meets Thats’ Entertainment!
So without further ado, I give you:
pusillanimous \ pyoo-suh-LAN-uh-muhs \ , adjective;
- lacking courage or resolution; cowardly; faint-hearted; timid.
- proceeding from or indicating a cowardly spirit.
The first image that comes to my mind, and I bet I’m not alone here, is the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz.
This immediate association suggests that pusillanimous is not necessarily synonymous with villainous. In fact, a character overcoming a history of cowardice or a paralyzing primal fear is often celebrated as a climatic act of heroism. Standing up to a bully is a classic example of someone triumphing over their pusillanimous tendencies. How about Celie’s showdown with Mistah in The Color Purple? Or Ralphie letting loose his pent up rage in a cathartic pummeling in a Christmas Story.
On the other hand, sci-fi and disaster movies love to pull the mask off their villains, revealing sniveling, self-serving weasels who reap their just rewards. Richard Chamberlain’s smarmy, corrupt architect in The Towing Inferno comes to mind, as well as Paul Riser’s twitchy, perspiring corporate hack from Aliens.
It’s all the more satisfying from a structural perspective when the main character’s actions lead to the coward’s downfall. If you look up pusillanimous in the dictionary, and I did, by all rights there should be photograph of Martin Sheen’s Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone.