In a post last year on political insults in vogue, like snowflake and elite, I left out cuck, a popular term with an entry in Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary. It’s a word with interesting ancestors, etymologically speaking, so let’s take a closer look.
Cuck is short for cuckold or cuckservative (which blends cuckold and conservative). Cuckold comes from cuckoo, a bird notorious for laying eggs in the nests of other birds, which then unwittingly rear the cuckoo’s chicks. The behaviour is called ‘brood parasitism’. With cuckold this idea of duplicity and unfaithfulness was applied to human relations, while similar phenomena elsewhere in nature saw the word extended to species like the cuckold-fish, cuckold-fly, and cuckold-tree.
Cuckold entered Middle English as cukeweld in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, from the Old French word cucuault, variously spelt. This came from the bird’s name – an onomatopoeic spelling of the sound it makes – plus an old pejorative suffix. The connection is more direct in modern French, where a cuckold is simply a cocu. See this video by etymology specialists Alliterative for more on these connections.
An unusual related word is cuckquean, meaning the wife of an unfaithful husband – like cuckold with the gender roles reversed. Jane Mills, in her book Womanwords, writes: ‘That cuckquean should have become obsolete after only two centuries of use reveals something of the double standard attached to fidelity and chastity.’ That is, adultery was seen as a male prerogative: a husband sleeping around was routine; a wife doing so warranted insults. Cuckquean didn’t disappear entirely, though, appearing in Ulysses, for example.
Quean is a notable word in its own right. It comes from Old English cwene, meaning ‘woman’, from Proto-Indo-European *gwen-, which is also the root of queen, misogyny, and gynaecology. In English, cwene was originally a neutral word; but like many terms of female reference, it gradually took on negative senses and connotations, coming to mean ‘impudent woman’, ‘hussy’, and ‘prostitute’. In Scots it has retained its original neutral sense.
Quean may have fallen from favour in English because of semantic interference with queen. Though homophones are ‘traps for unwary learners and native speakers alike’, a language can tolerate them when they occur in distinct contexts, as J.D. O’Connor notes in his book Phonetics. But if two different words are pronounced the same and used in similar contexts, the likelihood of confusion increases, and:
the language may react either by getting rid of one and using other terms or by modifying one. When English quean, queen, became homophonous they did get in each other’s way – both nouns, both referring to a woman, one highly derogatory, the other honorific – so we dropped quean.
Cuckquean and cuckold are normally used as nouns but sometimes also as verbs. The OED shows both verbs in a line from a 17thC play by Richard Brome: ‘You can doe him no wrong … to cuckold him, for assure your selfe hee cuckqueans you.’ The contemporary insult cuck aims to draw on the emotional and symbolic weight of these words, gained through centuries of ridicule, insinuation, and abuse.Email this Post