Words to Describe Fearful Recoil

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Writers are constantly reminded “Show, don’t tell!”

One way to be more descriptive in our writing is to use verbs that convey movement.

Here are some words that describe movement prompted by fear, cowardice, or pain.

flinch [flĭnch] to draw away in anticipation of pain.
The prisoner flinched when the guard raised the whip.
The nobleman did not flinch as he mounted the steps to the guillotine.
The soldier marched unflinchingly through the hail of arrows.

shrink [shrĭngk] – to draw back as if trying to make one’s body smaller. One might shrink into the shadows in an attempt to become invisible. Figuratively it has the sense of avoiding danger, often used with a negative: He did not shrink from battle. By the way, the principal parts of this verb are shrink, shrank, (have) shrunk.

wince [wĭns] – One might wince from pain, real or anticipated.
The patient winced as the dentist probed the painful molar.
She winced when he called her “fat.”

Flinch, shrink, and wince all derive from words meaning “bend,” turn, or “turn aside”

blench [blĕnch] – I used to think blench included the idea of turning pale along with recoiling. However, it is not related to blanch. It just means “move suddenly, wince, or dodge.”

cower [kou’ər] – Although the word looks as though it might have a connection with coward, it probably comes from a German word meaning “to lie in wait.” In current usage it conveys a cowardly or fearful movement.
The sailor cowered under the lash.
The frightened puppy cowered under the porch.

cringe [krĭnj] – In Old English the word could mean “to fall dead in battle.” Now it has the less final meaning of “to draw back” or “move in a fearful manner.”
The servant had a cringing manner, as if moving in constant fear of being struck.
The nurse cringed as the demanding patient rang the bell for the twentieth time in ten minutes.

grovel [grŏv’əl, grŭv’-] – This is a word to use when the action takes place close to the ground. It conveys the sense of demonstrating servility by dropping onto one’s knees, or even going face down. Figuratively it can be used of people too eager to please.
Deprived of his weapon, the enemy grovelled in the dirt, pleading for his life.

quail [kwāl] – Although spelled the same as the name of the game bird, the verb to quail, “to lose courage, to shrink,” is not related. Its origin is uncertain. Words meaning “to be ill,” “to die,” and “to curdle” have been suggested. In current usage, quail means “to draw away in fear or weakness.”
He quailed at the prospect of climbing the mountain a second time.

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4 thoughts on “Words to Describe Fearful Recoil”

  1. “Show, don’t tell” is very good advice, but I would steer away from using fairly obscure words such as ‘blench’ and ‘quail’, or a word that does not have an instant impact.

    By the time the reader has figured out what a quail has to do with the action, the momentum will be lost!

  2. Having a little fun with these words:

    Does a “shrink” shrink from clients?
    Does a cow cower?
    Can you grovel on the gravel?
    Will a quail quail from hunters?
    Do people on the fringe cringe?
    Do finches flinch?
    Bleach may not blench, but you may blench from fist clenched (ok-that’s a stretch)


  3. Shy is another one. Generally when you use the word in the context of “fearful recoil” it applies to horses, but it could also be applied to people.

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