What does the idiom "have a yellow streak" mean?

You are wondering about the meaning of the phrase have a yellow streak, maybe you heard it in a TV show, movie or theater play. Although this idiom is not used very often, it enriches your capacity of expression and strengthens communication. In which case is the expression have a yellow streak used and what is its meaning?

Meaning of "have a yellow streak"


The idiom "have a yellow streak" is used to describe someone who shows cowardice in a particular situation. It suggests that they have a cowardly nature and may turn away from a challenge when under pressure. It can be applied to both individuals or groups of people.


The idiom “have a yellow streak” is believed to be derived from the phrase “yellow-bellied coward” which was first used in the 1800s. The origin of this phrase is unclear but some suggest it may be related to the phrase “yellow-belly”, which was used to describe a coward in the late 19th century. Interestingly, the phrase “have a yellow streak” was first recorded in the early 20th century and was popularized by the writer O. Henry in his 1908 story “The Wind and the Rain”.


The phrase “have a yellow streak” is used to describe someone who lacks courage or is easily intimidated. It is generally used in a negative way and implies a certain lack of spine or moral integrity. It is often used to express disbelief or disapproval of someone’s behavior in a particular situation. It can be used to describe an individual or group of people who avoided taking action when other people deemed it necessary, or when there was a challenge or risk involved.

Example Sentences

  • He was brave enough to stand up for his opinion but his colleagues all had a yellow streak and decided to stay quiet.
  • I was shocked when I saw how quickly the team had a yellow streak and chose not to help their friend in need.
  • It’s easy to talk tough when there’s no real risk, but it takes a real man not to have a yellow streak when it counts.

The meanings of the words in the "have a yellow streak" idiom

The Surprising Origins of Everyday English Idioms

Many English idioms have surprisingly dark origins, often rooted in violence, death, and superstition. For instance, the phrase "raining cats and dogs" is said to have originated in the 17th century, when heavy rain would often cause dead animals to wash up on the streets. Meanwhile, the idiom "rule of thumb" is believed to have originated from a law that allowed men to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than their thumb.


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