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1. a grey bird that leaves its eggs in other birds’ nests and makes a loud call that sounds like its name

2. the sound made by a cuckoo

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun cuckoo came into English in the mid 13th century, probably from the French ‘coucou’. Both words imitate the unmistakable call of the male, which arrives in Europe from Africa in the spring.


There are many species of cuckoo, but only one that nests in this country. Cuckoos are parasitic, laying their eggs in the nests of other species to be raised by them to the exclusion of their own broods, which the cuckoo chicks destroy. The phrase ‘a cuckoo in the nest’ refers to an unwanted and unwelcome thing or person, just like the cuckoo chick in the nest of an unwitting warbler. Despite this unpleasant behaviour, cuckoos are greatly loved by many, their call eagerly awaited as signalling the arrival of summer. Cuckoos are a threatened species in the UK, their numbers having declined catastrophically over recent decades. A cuckoo clock is a typically Swiss clock with a small door from which a model bird emerges on the hour while the clock makes the cound of a cuckoo. The adjective cuckoo, which means ‘crazy’, only arrived in the early 20th century but already seems dated. Its earliest recorded use is in the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Cloud-cuckoo-land is a place of unrealistic fantasy; it is a translation of the name of the city of the birds in Aristophanes’ comedy ‘The Birds’.


“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
(Graham Greene, The Third Man)

Related words

swallow, martin, swift

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

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