My first encounter with the word dastard came in eighth grade when I read Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott in English class.
For younger readers who may have missed out on a basic literary education because of the demands of standardized testing, I’d better give a little background.
This wonderful narrative poem from Scott’s longer work, Marmion, describes how the brave Scots knight Lochinvar rides madly over the countryside, through bushes and across rivers to reach his sweetheart in time to save her from an unwanted marriage.
Contrary to our hero Lochinvar, who is “faithful in love and … dauntless in war,” the unworthy groom is “a laggard in love, and a dastard in war.”
The word dastard in English dates from the fifteenth century as a noun formation from an adjective meaning dull, stupid, or addled by drink. The earliest but now obsolete meaning was “one inert or dull of wit, a dullard.”
Dastard soon took on the meaning of “one who meanly or basely shrinks from danger; a mean, base, or despicable coward.”
In modern use, it refers especially to someone who “does malicious acts in a cowardly, skulking way, so as not to expose himself to risk.”
The adjective dastardly means, “characterized by despicable shrinking from danger; showing base cowardice.”
Here are some examples of the use of dastardly from the Oxford English Dictionary:
The Swiss infantry…behaved in a dastardly manner and deserted their post. —Hume’s History of England, 1761.
The most dastardly and perfidious form of assassination. —Macaulay, History of England. 1855
The slanders of an avowed antagonist are seldom so mean and dastardly as those of a traitor. —Spurgeon, The Treasury of David. 1872.
The quotation from Macaulay is from his account of the Massacre of Glencoe, an infamous incident in which the government agents of William of Orange treacherously murdered some thirty Scotsmen who had been loyal to James II, but who, after the Jacobite uprising, had indicated they were ready to sign a loyalty oath to William.
The word laggard refers to a person who is slow to act.
The adjective mean and the adverb meanly in the definitions derive from the medieval concept of low birth as opposed to high birth. A person who behaves “meanly” is one lacking in the human qualities once thought to be bestowed by noble birth, but are now seen to be attainable in other ways.
The words base and basely in this context are synonyms for mean and meanly and derive from the same idea of low or base birth.