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Your cheatin’ words

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from thisreadingtheoed.jpg experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below Ammon looks at words for cheating.

Examining the recent activities of certain political figures, one might have the thought that the phenomenon of men cheating on their spouses is far more common than the reverse. And if this is the case, our language would certainly reflect this in its vocabulary, right? Wrong.

In some ways this theory is not surprising. It is tempting to assume that a group’s habits and environment will dictate the vocabulary of their language, which perhaps explains the tenacity of the myth that the Inuit have 217 (or some such number) words for snow. However, the vocabulary of a language does not always provide a perfect reflection of the culture of the people who speak it.

I’ve known this for some while, but even so, as I read through the OED I was more than a little surprised at just how great a disparity existed between the number of words for men and women who had been cheated on by their spouses.

A man who has an unfaithful spouse is often referred to as a cuckold. But should one wish, one could also refer to him as a becco, cornuto, half-moon, hoddypoll, horn-stock, ram-head, summer bird, or a wittol (the last of these words refers to a man who is aware that his wife is cheating on him and doesn’t much mind).

Rather than use the verb cuckolded to describe what was done to him, a man could also say that he’d been actæoned, adhorned, cornified, cuckoldized, hornified, or shoe-horned. And if he wanted to apply a label to the person who had cuckolded him, well, he’d have at least three choices – cornutor, horner, or graff-horn. There are even multiple phrases that refer to the imaginary horns that are the sign of a cuckold: hart’s crest, Sussex crest, and horny coronet. There are words to describe both the indignation of the cuckold (horn-mad) and also his appearance (‘horn-face – a stupid face, such as a cuckold might have’)

These are but some of the words that I found in the OED which relate to cuckolds and being cuckolded (I’ve left out all of the more elaborate expressions, such as ‘knight of the forked order’). I have no idea as to whether it is more common for husbands to cheat on their wives or vice versa. But given that there exists this extraordinarily detailed vocabulary with which to describe a man’s marital humiliations, I’d long thought that there must be some similar list of words with which to describe both a husband’s bedswerving and his bedswerved wife. When I sat down to read the OED I thought that at last I would find them all.

I found exactly one. Cuckquean.

To be fair, cuckquean functions as both a noun and a verb, so perhaps we can count it as two words. And there may well be other related words that I didn’t find. Yet their numbers are nothing compared to the many dozens of words that (even obsolete, as so many of them are) stand testament to man’s injured pride.

Why does this imbalance exist? Does it have something to do with the way in which the OED was compiled, or is it simply a reflection of male fear of infidelity? I don’t know, and I’m fairly certain that were I to hazard a guess I would gain nothing except for some offended readers and possibly a lecture on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis sent in by a bored linguist.

Maybe someday soon we’ll see an eponymous neologism creep into the language, and spitzer will join cuckquean. True, spitzer is lacking the etymological heft and grandeur of actæon (the mythological hunter who was ‘horned’ and turned into a stag by the Greek goddess Diana), but when the numbers are as skewed as they are, this doesn’t much matter.

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Recent Comments

  1. Mantelli

    I’ve used the word “wittol” for years, but, oddly, I seem to have been using its secondary meaning. I’ve always used it to mean a witless person. Today is the first time I’ve encountered the definition of “wittol” as a cuckolded man who’s aware of his wife’s infidelidty, and found that to be the primary meaning. Hmmm…

  2. Matt Franck

    There is something wrong with this guy. But if the book is this funny I’ll buy it anyway.

  3. Tracy

    What about Paterson? Could “Paterson” be used to describe cuckold-lite?

  4. Eve

    Man, I want to read the book now too! For other cool sites, try eprep.com. It totally messes with your head and you learn definitions at the same time!

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