Friday, January 23, 2009


n. A man married to an unfaithful wife.

cuck·old·ed, cuck·old·ing, cuck·olds
tr.v. To make a cuckold of.

[Middle English cokewald, from Anglo-Norman cucuald, from cucu, the cuckoo, from Vulgar Latin cucclus, from Latin cuclus.]

The least interesting thing about the word cuckold is its interesting etymology. It derives from the cuckoo bird, which is known for laying its eggs in the nests of another bird, throwing away the other birds's eggs, and leaving its cuckoo eggs to be cared for by the resident nesters. Going back to the Romans, I guess, the cuckoo's nesting routine was seen as an act of infidelity to her chicks and mate, not even raising his offspring.

The more interesting thing to me is that the word cuckold is so uncommon to most contemporary English speakers. It's just something we don't give much thought to: a woman who cheats on her husband. My guess is that in our culture, the vast majority of married women are faithful to their husbands; and when a woman is not, her infidelity is not seen as being his failing, because in Anglo-Saxon countries, husbands don't own their wives, the way they do in some other cultures.

It also interests me that we have another word, cornuto, which means exactly the same thing. I'm not sure when cornuto came into English -- it comes from Italian, meaning one who is horned -- but having a second word for this same phenomenon suggests to me that back in the old days married Englishmen were more worried about being cuckolded than they are today.

In contrast to the unfamiliarity of cuckold, the word cabrón in Spanish, particularly in a macho country like Mexico, is commonplace. No Spanish speaker is unfamiliar with it. Literally, a cabrón is a cuckold. They are synonymous. For a macho, the idea that his wife would be unfaithful to him is the height of insult. She is his property. For her to sleep with another man makes her a slut and him worse than a fool. Figuratively, cabrón has other meanings in Spanish. With a negative inflection, it can mean jerk or asshole or son-of-a-bitch or any other type of generally bad guy: "Ay, cabrón." But said to a friend, in a joking manner -- and this is its most common usage -- cabrón means buddy. Because it literally is a put-down, you would not casually call someone cabrón if he was not really a close friend, not really your buddy.

One final thought on the cuckold idea: what do you call a woman whose husband cheats on her? I don't think we have a word for that in English. I don't know if any language has such a word. Historically speaking, it's like having a word for a dog whose owner pets someone else's mutt. That dog may feel cheated, but we don't give a damn about his feelings. It's our language, not his.

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