…like an old cuckold with horns on his head… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, II i

Mixed feelings is what I’ve got here. One the one hand, I’m always thrilled at the possibility that a word that’s fallen into disuse over the last century or four may make a comeback and as a by-product reduce the conversational obscurity of some Shakespeare here and there. On the other hand, it would have to be “cuckold”, which the lazier misogynists of our century (I should cut them some slack on the laziness, though – they’re getting a lot of heavy misogyny accomplished, if “accomplished” is the word I’m after here) can’t even type out in full but shorten to “cuck”.

It’s also likely that 70-85% of them don’t know what it means exactly but just heard it used as an insult somewhere; sadly for them, they don’t realize they’d have extra characters with which to harass the sensible on Twitter if they knocked it from four letters down to one emoji: horns.

There’s your frowning purple devil, your bull, and your kind-of-Christmassy circular bugle with a ribbon on it that…someone thought we needed an emoji for…I guess. Regardless. They’d just use those three extra characters to misspell something anyway.

The derivation of “cuckold” from “cuckoo” is easy enough, what with the laying of eggs in other birds’ nests and all, but no one is really sure about the whole “a cuckold has horns” derivation, though I’ve heard theories ranging from:

Zeus-and-Europa (which doesn’t really make sense, unless you-the-cuckold are a different, actual bull that was planning to run off with a human woman?) to…

the Minotaur’s parentage (which makes a lot more sense and is high on the list of sensible cuckold origins but still King Minos the cuckold is literally the only being without real or fake horns in the situation) to…

something about Roman soldiers successful in battle being awarded horns (but often returning to a straying wife or a Dear Iohannes scroll) all the way down to…

somehow anti-Semitism (one of, to me, the weirdest translational misunderstandings in the Bible – Et tu, Michelangelo?).

My favorite, and the one that feels both the most proverbial and the most rural, which makes it ring truer, is the simple notion that a Bull Can’t See His Own Horns, nor can a cuckold his own humiliated situation.

No matter the origin, if the word is going to return, I do wish the horn-based implications would return with it. We’re doing Much Ado About Nothing and I feel like half the lines in the play are about horns but The C-Word is spoken only once, so a sense that more of the audience would be able to chuckle mildly at the references without some sort of footnote supertitles would be nice.

One of my favorite of the play’s many, many, I-refuse-to-sit-and-count-them-all-because-there-are-dozens-in-Much-Ado-alone, convoluted ways of expressing the whole idea is Benedicke’s pronouncement that he will not “have a rechate winded in my forehead”. A recheat (modern spelling) is a hunting call to bring the hounds back when they’ve lost track of the game. Short-I “winded” in the sense of “wind blown through”. So he would rather have his own personal cuckold horns hollowed out and blown into while they’re still on his head, with the further implication that doing so would, since he’s the Prey in any marriage scenario, be calling the dogs back to find him. Layers. This is why I’m sad these jokes play only in, what, Anglophile foxhunting communities or in places like Portugal and Italy where people still recognize an age-old language of rude gestures that includes the useful “finger horns at the temples” (cf., this from the BBC).

But we’re in America. There are only maybe five or six good derisive hand gestures, and I’m fairly certain nose-thumbing is the only one we could get by with – it’s a family crowd. Feh – and they call ours a digital age.

5 thoughts on “…like an old cuckold with horns on his head… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, II i

  1. Of course, there is the cuckold sexual kink/fetish which is a significant driver in the word’s resurgence. Although, in this instance, changes the meaning a bit. Men with this fantasy enjoy being cuckolded. 😈


  2. […] Much like misty origins of the horns of a cuckold, there’s no backstory universally agreed upon with the apes here. Of feminism’s many upsides, the reduction of the stigma of being An Unmarried Woman is but one – yes, there are still pressures and advertisements and tsks from older relatives (who are going to tsk about something anyway) but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard the word “spinster” or “old maid” used without irony and your meddlesome aunt, while perhaps asking you more than you’d like about whether or not there’s some nice boy who’ll keep you from dying alone in your apartment, is at least not going to suggest that your soul is doomed to lead tethered apes into hell for all eternity. Unless she’s a terrifying fundamentalist of some stripe, at most maybe you’ll be saddled with Crazy Cat Lady. Which, sure, is still sexist, but is of much lighter weight than having your soul doomed to lead tethered apes into hell for all eternity. […]


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