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Etymology Gleanings: May 2018

Still with the herd

Man, as they say, is a gregarious animal, and wearing horns could become the male of our species, but etymology sometimes makes unpredictable leaps. I of course knew that Italian becco means “cuckold” (the image is the same in all or most of the Romance languages, and not only in them), but would not have addressed this sensitive subject, had a comment on becco not served as a provocation. So here are some notes on cuckoldry from a linguistic point of view.

Engl. cuckold, going back to the trisyllabic cukeweld, is a thirteenth-century borrowing of an Old French noun. (The entire English vocabulary of adultery is French. Germanic was relegated for less subtle things.) It has the root of cuckoo and the element –old, usually called a pejorative suffix. The connection with the bird, though easy to guess, is oblique. The Common European cuckoo lays its egg or eggs in other birds’ nests, and the hatched bird indeed eats the other nestlings out of house and home. However, the bird story is not about “the husband of an unfaithful wife,” as older dictionaries delicately summarize the situation; it is mainly about raising a child fathered by the wife’s lover. The association is old. In the great Middle High German epic The Lay of the Nibelungen (ca. 1205), Hagen, the three ruling kings’ counsellor, suspects that the father of the queen’s son is not her husband but the hero Siegfried, and asks in irritation: “Suln wir gouche ziehen?”  (“Should we bring up cuckoos [bastards]?” Gouch, Modern German Gauch, means “cuckoo.”)

The prototypical cuckoo. Image credit: Reed Warbler feeding a Common Cuckoo chick in a nest. Brood parasitism by Per Harald Olsen.CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But the cuckoo as the symbol of adultery has not survived, except in the English word cuckold. A deceived husband is supposed to wear horns, rather than resembling the parasite bird. All kinds of fanciful explanations have been offered to explain the allusion. According to the safest law of reconstruction (I have discovered it myself and advertise it at every opportunity), be it phonetics, grammar, or vocabulary, the more ingenious an explanation, the greater the chance that it is wrong. Some people trace the phrases “to wear horns, to give someone horns” to the infidelity of Roman wives: allegedly, the victorious legionnaires returned home with horns gracing their helmets but unaware of how their wives behaved during their absence—a nice flight of imagination. Another suggestion ascribes the idiom to the behavior of fighting stags, bulls, and their likes in heat. Stags (at least in English) have antlers, and I am sorry to add that antler is a word of unknown origin (from French).

The main problem is not to “guess” the origin of the strange reference to horns, but to discover its age. When did the speakers of the European languages begin to allude to horns as a telltale sign of wives’ infidelity? None of the data I have seen predates the Middle Ages, and some words are considerably later. Perhaps German Hahnrei “cuckold,” another thirteenth-century noun (that is, it first showed up in texts at that time), supplies the sought-for clue. The word is a bit dated but not obsolete.  The origin of the second syllable (-rei) is rather obscure, even if not beyond reconstruction, but the root—hahn—poses no problems: it means “rooster” and is related to Engl. hen.

Images of cuckolds are many and uninspiring. Image credit: The celebration [fête] of the Order of Cuckoldry before the throne of her majesty, Infidelity by H. Churchyard. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
According to a plausible explanation, the story runs as follows. Some cockerels were castrated at a rather early age, to be fattened and used for food. Castrated roosters are called capons. (Capon is of course another French word, for it designates a bird used for food, and after the Conquest fine cookery was the domain of Romance-speaking specialists.) The spurs of the castrated capons were cut off and implanted into the comb, in order to distinguish them from the rest of the fowl. The spurs continued to grow and often began to look like real horns. Apparently, this custom was known all over Western Europe. It follows that the word Hahnrei was originally applied not to the husband of an adulterous wife but to a castrate (or an impotent?), a male who could not become a spouse. That is why a deceived husband was said to wear horns. This explanation seems convincing. If someone knows a better one, kindly share it with our readers.

More words for bulls and cows

Engl. buffalo goes back a long way to Latin būfalus. Greek boúbalos meant “antelope” and “wild ox.” Once again we come across b- ~ bu– words for the bull. If Luwian cuneiform for “cow” was wawi, the first impression is that we have an onomatopoeia, perhaps even a baby word.  (Luwian, I am happy to report, is an ancient language of the Anatolian group.) If this suggestion has any value, it further undermines the idea that bull is connected with ball and that the animal’s name reflects a pars pro toto situation (“part used as the name of the whole”), as, in, for example, all hands aboard! (obviously, not only the hands will appear) or twenty head of cattle (their tails will predictably come after them). It is hard to imagine that someone ever said: “Here are excellent balls,” meaning: “Here is a big bull.”

Chow and cow cannot be connected. Chow is a dialectal phonetic doublet of chew (Old Engl. cēowan), while the old form of cow is . Likewise, horn cannot derive from any word or root without r in the middle. A non-Germanic cognate should begin with k (as in the borrowed words cornea and cornucopia). No can I detect a bridge from bull to warm.

My thanks are due to the correspondent who informed me that wether “castrated ram” is an unforgotten word in Australia and New Zealand. But it seems to have fallen into desuetude in American English. Nor does the following doggerel (a tongue twister) have any currency in my parts (in my promiscuous parts, as Kipling put it): “I don’t know whether the wether will weather the weather or whether the weather the wether will kill.”  Even my spellchecker ignores wether. However, bellwether is remembered, even if not too well.

Odds and ends

Otiose and otiosity. The adjective otiose means “of no practical effect; useless.” This spelling goes back to the nineteenth century. The senses “idle, at leisure” are now archaic (but then the word is in general bookish and rare). In a slightly different form the word appeared in English texts in the fifteenth century and meant “at ease.” Its etymon is Latin otium “leisure”; hence the adjective.  Otiosity emerged in English at the end of the fifteenth century. In English, otiosity was not derived from otiose: they were borrowed separately.

Ethics. The word goes back to Greek ēthos, which meant “dwelling, an accustomed seat (hence in the plural “abodes or haunts, usually of animals; compare Engl. habit and inhabit); usage; custom; personal disposition; nature, character.”  In Classical Greek, this word partly overlapped with hétos (short é!) “habit, custom.” The ancient root of ēthos began with sw– and meant “one’s own.” Engl. ethos is a nineteenth-century word, but the adjective ethic is contemporary with Shakespeare.

  1. Some of the questions I received require long explanations, and I’ll answer them in the nearest future. It should be added that I am not responsible for the order in which the readers’ comments appear on the website. Although the procedure is not known to me, it has nothing to do with the content of the remarks or the personality of the correspondent.
The most famous man in literary history who thought that he had been cuckolded: A tragedy of betrayed trust. Image credit: Scene from “Othello” with Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild production, Broadway, 1943-44 by Unknown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Toward Spelling Congress: London, May 30, 2018

One of the most insightful works on the literacy of the Middle Ages is H. J. Chaytor’s book From Script to Print: An Introduction to Medieval Vernacular Literature. I would like to quote a passage from it:

School instruction starts with the book, and the book’s orthography is regarded as a kind of legal code against which there is no appeal. Meanwhile, language develops, and sounds change, but ‘spelling’ remains fixed, unless the tinkering of amateur philologists helps to make confusion worse confounded, with the result that English orthography is now the despair of Europe, while that of France leaves much to be desired (emphasis added).

(Shouts from the audience: “Hear, hear!”)

Featured Image: Buffalo, NY. The town’s name possibly goes back to the name of Buffalo Creek, but the etymology is not certain. This is a common problem: compare Boulder, Colorado (the post for 22 February 2017). Featured Image Credit: Buffalo 1813 by Benson Lossing. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Just curious if the name of the Polish capital is related to name of the bull in Latvian vērsis (actually calf in Lithunian – ver̃šis ). The word for bull in Estonian härg etymologically related to a Baltic horse – zirgs LV, žirgas LT, but seems rather close to vērsis as well. So animal words had tendency to change slightly when crossing lingusitic borders. It seems vērsis somehow related to Lithuanian ver̃slas (work), vergs – serf. Latin verrēs ‘boar’ refers to masculinity. Virsus/viršus(the top) could also explain some references to raining of the same root.

  2. Maggie Catambay

    I learned to read through comic books that often had phonetic spelling such “Whadja mean?”, etc.

    I just saw a t-shirt on Nicollet Mall yesterday that said “Kum and go”. Spelling reform continies apace with or without a conference!

    What do you all think?

  3. Will

    As an old curmudgeon, I found the article quite interesting. It is sad that today’s Gen-X populace were neglected, with respect of the olde mother tongue, though appears to have survived in American private schools of excellence (if the Gilmore Girls, is indicative of schooling in upmarket prep schools, preparing kids for Yale/Harvard, is anything to go by.)
    My ancient Waverley dictionary has an opening segment on Etymology and having read it many years ago, I found it useful in understanding the language roots and it’s course through history… It’s just a shame Webster made a dog’s breakfast of it, by simplifying the spellings all those years ago.

  4. Yves Rehbein

    Are you familiar with the meaning behind “Wie ein Ochse vor dem …” (like an ox before the …), specifically with “… Tor”? I’ve seen on TV the process of milking a bull for sperm. The bull is leaning over a structure, namely the “Tor”, which to the bull mimics a cow. The crux is, oxen can’t breed.

    In gymnastics the obstacle is called, ironically, “horse”. If I am not mistaken, “dog” has some currency, too. Ger. “Prellbock” (“buffer stop” for trains) exhibits a equally creative name.

    Now I wonder whether the name “Tor” can be attested and whether that’s because it looks like a regular “Tor”, ie. gate. Or could it have a connection to torso?

  5. Gavin Wraith

    During the short time I lived in Buffalo I was told that its name was once Belle Fleur. I suppose that should be easy to check.
    Danish has vaedder for wether, and vaeddeloeb for a competitive race. My (Danish) wife suggested that there might be a connection with betting here. The wether leads the rest of the flock, of course.
    Latin negotium (= business) is literally a denial of leisure. My motto is: otium negare, vanum negotium. I think this means: denying leisure is a pointless business. In a psalm, I cannot remember which, you find:
    Non timebis a timore nocturno,
    a sagitta volente per diem,
    a negotio perambulante in tenebris
    a ruina et demonio meridiano.
    I was never quite sure exactly what business those verses referred to. Better not ask, perhaps.

  6. Peter Maher

    becco ‘beak’ etc. ‘Cuckold’?

  7. James Shaw

    ἦθος cf. ἔθος in Greek. So rather than ēthos cf hétos (short é!) it should be ēthos cf éthos? The h became displaced perhaps.

  8. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write

    “Chow and cow cannot be connected. Chow is a dialectal phonetic doublet of chew (Old Engl. cēowan), while the old form of cow is cū. Likewise, horn cannot derive from any word or root without r in the middle.”

    Leaving aside the “dialectical phonetic douplet” diversion, “the old form of cow is cū” does not tell us anything about the etymology of “cow” or “cū”. While “cow” from “chow” encapsulates the characteristic activity of cows. Even found in expressions like “stop chewing like a cow”.

    As for “horn cannot derive from any word or root without r in the middle”, the Greek “honi” is two syllables. Each syllable being, of course, physiologically distinct and complete in itself.

    But the English “horn” that I claim derives from “honi” is one syllable. Try squeezing two syllables into one. The physiological transition from “h”-“o”-“n” sounds into a single syllable will naturally go through and introduce the “r” sound. Which physiologically lies inbetween.

    In the two syllables “honi”, that is not necessary. Since each syllable is separate and complete. Thus no “r” need be inbetween.


  9. Jeremy


    You write:

    “Leaving aside the ‘dialectical phonetic douplet’ [sic] diversion, ‘the old form of cow is cū’ does not tell us anything about the etymology of ‘cow’ or ‘cū’. While ‘cow’ from ‘chow’ encapsulates the characteristic activity of cows. Even found in expressions like “stop chewing like a cow”.

    Actually, that “cow” was “cu” in Old English does tell us about the etymology of “cow,” as OE [u] became [au] in the Great Vowel Shift. It also shows that, because [k] before high vowels was palatalized and became an affricate in late Old English, there is no connection between “chow” and “cow.” Additionally, if “cow” were from “chow,” what are all the other numerous examples of the affricate /ch/ < /c/ (read: [k]) that show this to be a regular change? And then what of OE "cu?"

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