Friday, September 29, 2006

TRJ: Cuckoo for Cuckold Puffs

Alternate title: One Flew Over the Cuckold's Nest

Today's special in the history of WordHumper because we're inaugurating "Total Request Jive" or "TRJ" for short. This will be a weekly Friday feature where you the WordHumper reader decide which lucky word gets humped back to the stoneage (or at least to Proto-Indo-Europa). And today's word comes to us from CH in Brooklyn who IMs:

CH: i want you to hump "cuckold"
CH: i bet it's dirty

I accept your challenge, CH! Cuckold goes back to the Old French word for the cuckoo bird. Because it's Friday and I'm lazy and the research has already been done let's go right to the blockquote from American Heritage.
The female of some Old World cuckoos lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving them to be cared for by the resident nesters. This parasitic tendency has given the female bird a figurative reputation for unfaithfulness as well. Hence in Old French we find the word cucuault, composed of cocu, “cuckoo, cuckold,” and the pejorative suffix –ald and used to designate a husband whose wife has wandered afield like the female cuckoo. An earlier assumed form of the Old French word was borrowed into Middle English by way of Anglo-Norman. Middle English cokewold, the ancestor of Modern English cuckold, is first recorded in a work written around 1250.
The OED adds that in German cuckold
...applied to the adulterer as well as the husband of the adulteress, and Littré cites an assertion of the same double use in French; in English, where cuckold has never been the name of the bird, we do not find it applied to the adulterer.
You may have heard that cuckolds are sometimes "wearing the horns"--if you're into egregious acts of humiliation you'll be happy to learn that this refers to an apocryphal tradition that claims in some European villages when a wife gives birth to a child recognizably not his own a parade is held "...in which the hapless husband is forced to wear antlers on his head as a symbol of his wife’s infidelity". Ouch.

It should be noted that although cuckold does have a rather negative connotation not all men who suffered this fate were necessarily unhappy. In fact a wittol is a man who doesn't mind that his wife is servicing the neighborhood. This comes from the Middle English wetewold, which is composed of the verb weten (to know), and (coke)wold, which, as we saw above means cuckold. The most famous of wittols is likely Sir William Hamilton (left) whose wife Emma became the lover of Horatio Nelson.

On a side note, the Middle English weten is also responsible for our Modern English word wit. And in case you're wondering how cuckoo came to mean a foolish or crazy person, I'm sorry to say sources are vague at best. The OED simply notes that a person is called cuckoo in reference to the "bird's monotonous call."

wittol [American Heritage]
wit [American Heritage]
wittol [OED]
cuckold [OED]
cuckoo [OED]
cuckold [Wikipedia]
cuckoo [Wikipedia]
William Hamilton [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:22 AM

2 Comments:

There's that great Simpsons moment when Homer suspects Marge of cheating with Moe. He stares up at the cuckoo clock and instead of a little wooden bird bouncing out saying "cuckoo, cuckoo", a little Moe bounces out saying, "Cuckold, cuckold." Homer, being Homer, doesn't know what that word means. (But wait, how'd he imagine that?! Everything true is false! Dr. Daystrom! M5!)
Blogger Loocite, at 12:19 PM  
I'll contact the Daystrom Institute.
Blogger David, at 9:35 AM  

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