By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! In honour of Valentine’s Day, today’s word is cuckold, a word all about understanding and misunderstanding nature.
The word ‘cuckold’ is used to refer to a man whose wife has cheated on him, and generally speaking he knows nothing about the infidelity while everyone around him does. The word isn’t as common as it once was, though no doubt adultery is as common as ever. However, the term does seem to have gained a new, if restricted, lease on life in more recent years in reference to the sexual fetish in which the cuckold derives sexual gratification from knowledge of his partner’s infidelity. The word “cuckold” is first recorded in English in the medieval poem “The Owl and the Nightingale”, a debate between two birds about which of them is better. The connection between cuckolds, birds, and bird debates will come back later, by the way. Anyways, the perhaps surprising etymology of the word arises from a long-standing knowledge of natural science. “Cuckold” is from the name of the cuckoo bird, with the addition of a pejorative suffix [-ault]. Many species of cuckoo birds practice what’s called brood parasitism, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds so that those other birds have to do all the work of raising the chicks. As the young cuckoos grow, they often push their smaller brothers and sisters out of the nest, killing them. So the use of the word to refer to a man who doesn’t know he has an unfaithful wife is an analogy – since a cuckold might be raising another man’s kids as his own. The word ‘cuckoo’ itself is imitative of the call of the bird, and comes into English from a similar French word, or ultimately from Latin ‘cuculus’, and replaces the earlier Old English word for the bird ‘geac’.
The word ‘cuckold’ is now most associated with the literature of the late middle ages and renaissance, used by such writers as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. In addition to the animal imagery of a bird, the other frequent animal image associated with the concept is the cuckold’s horns, which are sometimes used figuratively in the literature or even literally in images or in stage productions of the time. But where does this symbol of marital infidelity come from? Well, no one knows for sure, but there are many theories. For instance, it might just be a sarcastic use of the horns or antlers of very macho animals such as rams or stags–since for these animals large horns or antlers are important markers of mating status and competition for females–hence the slang term “horny”. The idea is then that these very masculine symbols are applied ironically to men whose manhood has been undermined by their wives’ cheating. Alternately, some have suggested it could be a reference to a Byzantine emperor Andronikos I who is said to have affixed horns to the houses of the married women he slept with to indicate that their husbands could receive special hunting privileges in compensation–though the contemporary sources just say that he put up a gigantic stag’s antlers in the marketplace to show off his conquests and mock local husbands. Or it might be an allusion to the Greek myth of Actaeon who, after catching sight of the goddess Artemis naked, is transformed into a stag, thus symbolic of the undermining of the male sexual prerogative. Perhaps the most surprising theory is that it relates to capons, roosters who have been castrated to increase their fattiness and thus improve their flavour. There was apparently a practice of cutting off the bony spurs from the feet of these castrated birds and then grafting the spurs into the open wounds on their heads where their coxcombs, the fleshy ridges that normally grow there, had also been cut off. Apparently the reattached spurs continue to grow there, producing something that looks very much like an antler–which marks the birds out and makes them easier to spot in the flock. This then would also be an appropriate symbol to mark a man whose wife has cheated on him–who, in these patriarchal societies, was considered equally emasculated. While this explanation may seem outlandish, it’s been pointed out that the German word for cuckold, Hahnrei, originally meant capon, and is a compound meaning, literally, rooster-deer.
In any case, however it happened, the horns have become so associated with adultery that to this day the hand gesture of the horns is in many places a very insulting gesture that implies a man’s wife has cheated on him–and he’s a fool for not knowing it. This may also have led to the now somewhat more benign hand gesture of the bunny ears frequently used as a joke in photographs–both made behind the head of the unwitting victim. Though it’s also been suggested that the bunny ears represent an ass’s ears in a basic symbol of foolishness, the two gestures may have merged here, and the bunny ears seems to have been used in the form of Italian drama called commedia dell’arte to indicate cuckoldry. Incidentally this symbol is also the source of the distinctive jester’s hat, which features the stylized representation of ass’s ears, horns, or coxcombs. The jester’s hat is also known as a foolscap, a word that eventually comes to refer to a size of paper, supposedly due to a watermark featuring the image of a jester. Foolscap was then misunderstood as full-scap. As a final sidenote, the office of the court jester in England was apparently nixed by noted buzzkill Oliver Cromwell, after he and his Puritan cronies executed King Charles I. Oh Cromwell, you joyless man–first Christmas, then jesters!
But returning to the cuckoo for a moment, the word is first attested in English in the famous 13th century Middle English “Cuckoo Song” which begins “Sumer is icumen in, hlude sing cuccu”. Summer here probably refers to spring actually, with the plants starting to grow again and the animals mating. The word “spring” isn’t attested until a little later, though there were a variety of other terms that could be used to refer to the season. Birdsong is naturally enough associated with the arrival of spring. Another famous Middle English poem uses the association of birds and spring, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, which describes the gathering of all the birds on Valentine’s Day to pick their mates. When a disagreement erupts about which male eagle gets the choice female eagle, presumably quite the hottie by bird standards, all the birds argue it out parliament-style. The cuckoo is also one of the birds in Chaucer’s poem, though his rather selfish opinion on the love debate receives scorn, and he is characterised as “unnatural” because of that whole brood-parasite tendency. The poem is a kind of animal allegory for the courtly love tradition, and the ins and outs of love and marriage. The strange thing is, February 14th is a rather early date for birds to start mating, even in the relatively mild climate of England. A number of solutions to this problem have been suggested, such as the discrepancy between our modern calendar and the one used at the time, which would have put Valentine’s Day somewhat later, or the suggestion that Chaucer might have been confused between two different St Valentines, the more obscure one celebrated instead in early May. One way or the other, contrary to many claims you may have heard, Chaucer’s poem seems to be the first association between St. Valentine’s Day and romantic love, so if you’re finding it hard to get into a romantic mood when it’s still rather cold outside, you can probably blame Chaucer and some kind of calendar cockup.
So on that note, it’s up to you to decide whether this word was inappropriate –or maybe very appropriate – for Valentine’s Day, and I’ll leave you on the horns of that dilemma.
I’ll be back soon with more etymological explorations and cultural connections, so please subscribe to this channel; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net.