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.”)
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.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 cū. 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.
- 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.
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.