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Cuck: The Weird History of a Disgusting Word You’re Going to be Hearing a Lot More

From Chaucer to Fetish Porn to the White House

A vile new slur has taken root in American politics. If you read internet comments sections, the political subsections of Reddit, or are politically active on Twitter, you may have encountered it: “cuck”. The rise of Trump and the mainstreaming of the American alt-right fringes has injected this bizarre, antiquated word into the political discourse (along with a derivative portmanteau “cuckservative”). It is crucial for us to understand the coded language used by hate groups—and now those in the halls of power—to attack those around them in case you encounter it in the wild: on the street, in your classrooms, by your Breitbart-reading uncle, or on TV.

Rising from relative obscurity, “cuck” and its derivatives have become a favorite way for alt-righters to insult anyone who does not fall in line with their ultra-reactionary ideologies. But before it became a staple on the neo-Nazi edges of 4chan, Reddit and the comments sections of Breitbart, it was a medieval word, conveying a very medieval idea.

The Vile Origins

Cuck, as you might expect, come from the word cuckold, an insulting word for a man whose wife is cheating on him. The Oxford English Dictionary places its first attested use in the mid-thirteenth century Middle English poem “The Owl and the Nightingale”. The poem recounts a comic debate between an Owl and a Nightingale, and here the Owl is taking a remarkably forward-thinking stance on gender relations. He is discussing a common occurrence—a man loses interest in his wife, and pursues other women. He then begins to abuse his wife—in the original Middle English:

Al Þat heo deÞ him is unwille,
al Þat heo spekeÞ hit is him ille:
an oft hwan heo noʒt ne misdeÞ,
heo haueÞ the fust in hire teÞ.
Þ[er] is nan mon Þat ne mai ibringe
his wif amis mid swucche Þinge:
me hire mai so ofte misbeode,
Þat heo do wule hire ahene neode.
La, Godd hit wot! heo nah iweld,
Þa[h] heo hine makie kukeweld.

 Or, in Modern English:

Everything she does he objects to,
everything that she says irritates him,
and often, when she’s not doing anything wrong,
she gets a punch in the mouth.
There’s no man who can’t lead
his wife astray with this kind of behaviour;
she can be ill-treated so often
that she resolves to satisfy her own needs.
God knows, she can’t help it
if she makes him a cuckold.

In other words, if a woman is being abused by her philandering husband, it’s no surprise that she would cheat on him too. Seems reasonable. But, when this idea was viewed through the lens of the toxic, patriarchal masculinity of the Middle Ages, it took a dark turn.

The Conception of Alexander the Great
Not ideal. Conception of Alexander the Great, Les faize d’Alexandre (translation of Historiae Alexandri Magni of Quintus Curtius Rufus), Bruges ca. 1468-1475. British Library, Burney 169, fol. 14r

Men who were cuckolds may have only had themselves to blame (compounded by the medieval idea that women were more sexual than men). But he was shamed not because of his behavior, but because of hers. This generated intense anxiety in men, since one of the central aspects of being a man meant controlling the women in your life—an idea that had been enshrined into law. And court records show the results: as Derek Neal writes,

“fights, wife-beatings and even homicides could originate in men’s anxiety that their wives had made them cuckolds, or in the use of the word cuckold as an insult between men.”

This word cuckold and the idea of the shamed, cuckolded man, shows up in some of our most celebrated literature. From Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale:

This carpenter hadde wedded newe a wyf,
Which that he lovede moore than his lyf;
Of eighteteene yeer she was of age.
Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage,
For she was wylde and yong, and he was old
And demed hymself been lik a cokewold.

This carpenter had recently wedded a wife,
Whom he loved more than his life;
She was eighteen years of age.
Jealous he was, and held her narrowly in confinement,
For she was wild and young, and he was old
And believed himself likely to be a cuckold.

to the Morte D’Arthur, to nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, the anxiety about being cheated upon—and thus losing control of your woman—became pervasive. There is a gendered opposite, “cuckquean” first seen in 1546. But this did not catch on to nearly the same degree—women’s infidelities aroused anxiety; men’s infidelities elicited praise.

By the 20th century, the word had faded enough into obscurity that the word was often defined in the margins of editions of Shakespeare or Chaucer. Part of this was likely due to changing gender and sexual norms—while few people like being cheated on, the invention of reliable birth control meant that infidelity less often resulted in children. The rise of feminism and the sexual revolution meant that, among progressive households, men and women saw each other increasingly as equal partners rather than property. In the past two decades, with the LGBTQ rights movement has come an acceptance of sexual partnerships that relax or do away with monogamy entirely—the rise of polyamory and what Dan Savage has termed “monogamish” relationships.

But then, the backlash.


The word cuckold, like so many things do, saw its rebirth in porn. The last decade’s renaissance in free streaming video content online has resulted in an incredible diversification of the porn industry. The famous meme “rule 34 of the internet” states: “If it exists, there is porn of it—no exceptions“, and that holds true here; “cuckold porn” found a healthy niche market on the internet. Cuckold porn features, as you might expect, scenarios where a man is humiliated by his wife having sex with another man. And, putting America’s racist id fully on display, often the man she is having sex with is black—apparently the ultimate humiliation and outrage for some consumers.

It has been assumed by the news outlets reporting on the lurid history of the word “cuck” that those men who consume cuckold porn are sexually submissive, aroused by putting themselves in the shoes of the man being cuckolded. But in light of the way cuck has been appropriated by the alt-right, it is clear there is another audience still: those who, even literally, get off watching a man be humiliated. This lays bare the power dynamic that was always inherent in the use of the word—in order for a man to be dragged down by it, there has to be another who feels it lifts them up.

And more, implicit in the idea of “cuck” and cuckold porn is that the husband in this scenario, either willingly or because of his inherent weakness, is giving up that which is rightfully his to a person who should be the enemy. There is a homosexual implication here—that the cuckolded man secretly (or not-so-secretly) desires the cuckolder. And because the racial dynamics within much of cuckold porn calls back to the earliest days of the Ku Klux Klan, where central to their mythology was the fear that liberals were giving their white women over to black men. All of this leads to an image of degradation and weakness that is loaded not just with sex, but the worst homophobic and racist politics.

Mainstreaming Cuck as a Crypto-slur

The word cuckold was perfect for the alt-right. Its meaning is tantalizingly filthy, its sound abrasive, and its relative obscurity fits well in a world where language is coded and cryptic (both to establish the in-group from the out and as a method of obfuscation). They took the word, shortened it to cuck (easier to tweet), and deployed it as their insult du jour. Anti-feminists steeped in the toxic masculinities of Reddit’s /r/RedPill, 4chan’s /pol/, or GamerGate used it to shame the men they despised.

Louis CK was one of the first targets of this term. This is why friends don't let friends use 4chan.
Louis CK was one of the first targets of this term. This is why friends don’t let friends use 4chan.

During the 2016 presidential election, the term went mainstream. Those the alt-right found new purpose in their chosen candidate, Donald Trump—to them, he was the opposite of a cuck: masculine, authoritarian, extremist, and uncompromising. He flaunted his numerous sexual infidelities—always the cuckolder, never the cuck. The infamous Access Hollywood tape, where Trump bragged about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, only solidified this in their eyes. Rush Limbaugh began using the term.

In July 2015, early in the campaign, the term mutated into “cuckservative”. The neologism, as The Washington Post reported:

“…burned up Twitter as fans of Donald Trump’s politicking warred with the movement conservatives who opposed it.”

Soon, any conservative who opposed Donald Trump, whether opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, or mainstream conservative pundits and commentators, was tarred with the term. And it is easy to see how Trump could be seen in the cuck paradigm—he was not just beating his opponents, but humiliating them, sliming their wives and families. It did not matter that none of it was true. What matters is that he forced them to watch as he violated their families.

It was at this point that the word cuck metastasized and took on new meanings, as it became a catch-all insult for any man they despised. In some circles, it has become synonymous with “race traitor”, as the Southern Poverty Law Center describes:

“White supremacists have been more than happy to co-opt the terminology, even tailor its definition to further describe politicians who don’t fall in line with the white nationalist cause.”

The Anti-Defamation League has found it being used in anti-Semitic circles

“by white supremacists to describe a white Christian conservative who promotes the interests of Jews and non-whites over those of whites.”

Unsurprisingly, but tellingly, the term began being used on Steve Bannon’s website Breitbart (which I refuse to link to)—not just in the comments sections, but in headlines like “’Cuckservative’ is a Gloriously Effective Insult”, and “Don’t Be a Cuck, Zuck! Accept My Debate Challenge”.

It is easy for language such as this to go unnoticed by those who are not its target. If you find it used in your classrooms, your social circles, or by your political opponents, you now know what you are dealing with.

And, I will be frank. This literally medieval toxic masculinity will now occupy the White House—bringing with it the worst corners of the racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic right wing. I will be the first to argue that comparisons to the Middle Ages are overused within political discourses. But in this case, the term, and those who use it, should be confined to the dustbin of history.

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Current EventsThe War for the Humanities

Selling the Humanities is Not Selling Out

Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up from an article I wrote for Inside Higher Ed, “The Humanities Must Unite or Die.

I recently met a young woman struggling over the decision of whether to go to college. She was enrolled in an excellent program for bright high-schoolers from low-income families, which was intended to give them a leg-up into STEM majors (and then, STEM careers). Any university would be lucky to have her—she is smart, motivated and articulate. She would be a first-generation college attendee. But she was torn.

The prospect of a five-figure loan to finance her education—while her parents struggle to make ends meet—felt risky, even irresponsible. She wondered whether, instead, to take a job right out of high school, particularly since she was unsure whether she even liked the STEM subjects promoted by the program.

STEM has been promoted by programs like this one—not to mention by government programs and presidential initiatives—as the sure path to a lucrative career, despite numerous studies indicating that it is little better than the arts and humanities at providing jobs after graduation. As a result, as college attendance rates have dropped for low-income students, those low-income students who remain have chosen to major in STEM fields far more than the arts and humanities.

The Washington Post recently reported a disturbing trend: between 2008 and 2013, “college enrollment among the poorest high school graduates—defined as those from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes—dropped 10 percentage points… the largest sustained drop in four decades.” This is particularly alarming because, “more than half of the nation’s K–12 public school students are considered to be from low-income families.” Ten percent of this population represents a very large number of people, including, possibly, the bright, conflicted young woman I met. (more…)

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Current EventsPolitics

Qatar, Kefala and a “Medieval” World Cup

By Laurent J. Cases

In a recent post on the FIFA corruption scandal and the attribution of the World Cup to Qatar, Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel exposed the wrongs of Qatar’s labor practices, known as the kefala system. While his exposition is meant to highlight the fact that the United States should have attributed the 2022 World Cup, a fact that I do not dispute, he nonetheless rightly appalled that a migrant worker:

can live in labor camps that western media […] have exposed as wretched. The work is long and stressful. It takes place under extreme heat and with few safety precautions. The results are often fatal – illness, heart problems, sheer exhaustion killing some of these men. There are falls and accidents because labor laws are almost non-existent.

He concludes, and this is the problem, “The entire thing is reprehensible. It’s almost unfathomable […]. It’s something out of the Middle Ages.” (more…)

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Current EventsRace, Class and Religion

Dark Revivals: Medievalism and ISIS

A handbill recruiting British Muslims to join ISIS.

By Amy S. Kaufman. 

As the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ continues to dominate headlines, medieval scholars have cautioned against casually labeling ISIS and its practices “medieval” as a way of calling them brutal or cruel or to distance them from ourselves.  Although ISIS courts the label through its desire to ‘rebuild’ an Islamic caliphate, Clare Monagle and Louise D’Arcens point out that their vision of the Middle Ages is a fantasy, one that “bears little relationship to the historical record of the very complicated and diverse forms of Islamic governance that evolved in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.”

These are important historical correctives, but there may also be a danger to limiting our conversations about ISIS and the Middle Ages solely to questions of accuracy. If we want to understand the movement’s appeal, especially to Western recruits, we need to consider another dimension of ISIS’s identification with the medieval past: the power that our collective fantasy of the Middle Ages has to inspire violence.

ISIS’s desired caliphate has historical precedent, but the movement also attempts to purify the past, fetishizing a lost “golden time” of Islam as an era free from dissent, free from bid’ah (heretical innovation), when women were silent, obedient, and pure and the entire community hummed with religious synchronicity.*

What is so appealing about this dream of a neomedieval Islamic state to young Westerners? Recruits in propaganda videos claim that ISIS offers them the freedom to be themselves, to live uninhibited lives, true to their hearts. A propaganda video released in June courts young men who feel alienated or constrained, one of its speakers promising, “All my brothers living in the West, I know how you feel in the heart, you feel depressed. The cure for the depression is jihad.” Another speaker on the video, a British man, explains how it felt to leave his wife and children to join ISIS: “I don’t miss a thing, you know?. . . I felt like I was in prison in that country and I’m here. I feel free, you know? I can drive, I can, you know, I don’t need a license. I don’t need insurance. I don’t need this and that…all of these things, you know, you feel like you’re in prison. You’re being punished. Here, it’s freedom. Totally freedom. I can walk around with a Kalashnikov if I want to, with an RPG if I want to.”

Gun- and sword-toting, freedom-fighting, uninhibited, these young recruits cast themselves as heroes in a glorious narrative of revolution and conquest.

Islam Yaken, a wealthy Egyptian who left his old life behind to join ISIS. He promotes the neomedieval hyper-masculine ISIS brand on social media.
Islam Yaken, a wealthy Egyptian who left his old life behind to join ISIS. He promotes the neomedieval hyper-masculine ISIS brand on social media. Image credit New Republic, 2014.

A New, ‘Medieval’ Manhood

ISIS is also peddling masculinity through its medievalism—not a historical masculinity, but the brutal Vikings plus Game of Thrones plus a dash of Grand Theft Auto medieval masculinity that’s glamorized in popular culture: a virile, violent, and dominant masculinity that controls the world. And while this wasn’t the reality of the Middle Ages, this is the reality of our fantasies about the Middle Ages, from HBO and The History Channel to Florida Congressman Steve Southland, whose recent invitation to an all-male fundraiser read, “Good men sitting around discussing & solving political & social problems over fine food & drink date back to the 12th Century with King Arthur’s Round Table.”

Obviously, in this neomedieval dream vision, freedom isn’t for everyone. The ‘emancipation’ of ISIS fighters relies on the oppression of those who would complicate the narrative of the golden time: it requires the submission and containment of women (or their rape and enslavement), the slaughter of heretics, and the conversion or execution of unbelievers.

That’s because the draw of the neomedieval state really isn’t about feeling “free”—it’s about feeling powerful and entitled. Even as medievalists lament the stereotype of the Middle Ages as barbaric and oppressive, governed by crushing religious intolerance and patriarchal domination, popular representations suggest that this fantasy of the past has an allure beyond making us feel better about our own progress. A society based on domination implies that someone had the power. And there are those who believe a hierarchy organized by gender and faith is a ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ condition, and more importantly, a structure in which they would have been privileged. They feel that today’s environments of equity and religious parity are landscapes of deprivation that have robbed them of the legacy of leadership and power they deserve.

Salacious Fantasies

Despite the religious claims of a group like ISIS, their fantasy is not the product of Islam. The neomedieval patriarchal religious state beckons with the promise of a lost status reclaimed, appealing both to people who are marginalized, like many first-generation Muslim immigrants, and those who simply see themselves as marginalized, like the Americans who flocked to the Biblical Patriarchy Movement (a movement now shaken by abuse scandals) hoping to ‘take back’ America and create a neomedieval state for Christians; or like Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass-murderer who claimed to be a Templar warrior fighting against Marxists and Muslims. Or we could cast back further into history for examples of the violent will to regain an imagined medieval power, authority, and grandeur: to the “Knights” of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, or to Nazi Germany.

I’m grateful to my fellow medievalists for their efforts to keep the media and the politicians honest, and we need more of it, especially when media outlets participate in ISIS’s construction of reality by calling murders “beheadings” and rape victims “concubines” or “sex slaves,” words with salacious rather than horrifying connotations. But we can’t be too quick to dismiss this vision of the past as just a fantasy: it is powerful enough to draw converts and recruits, and to justify violence and persecution in the minds of ISIS fighters. Murder becomes a way of negotiating perceived loss, victims become the agents of a corruption that must be purged, and the legions of innocent dead are celebrated as conquered enemies who threaten a historical precedent that never really was.

ISIS’s fantasies should remind us that the Middle Ages is never just the past. Their dark dream of medievalism, constructed half by history and half by desire, thrives in our collective imagination and threatens to cast a long shadow over our future.

*Peter ‘Theo’ Curtis, writing as Theo Padnos, delves into the intellectual and emotional roots of Westerners drawn to fundamentalist Islam in his 2011 Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen. Students at the Yemeni school he investigated were drawn to the vision of the Islamic “golden time” in the early Middle Ages as well as the possibility of recreating it.

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Current EventsRace, Class and Religion

What’s in an Acronym?: ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’

Guest post from Ian D. Morris, who is a scholar of Medieval Islamic culture, currently pursuing a Ph.D. with the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. He blogs on related issues over at, and tweets at @iandavidmorris


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Current Events

What Will Your Verse Be?

Like just about everyone, I have been  mourning the death of Robin Williams ever since I heard about it on Monday. I grew up with his movies.  And his stand-up (along with that of George Carlin and Eddie Izzard) taught me more about the flailing absurdity of human existence than anything else did.

When I was in high school, Dead Poets Society touched me deeply, as it did many in my generation. This was not least because I wanted desperately to be an actor (though I was lucky that my parents were far more supportive than Neil’s [Robert Sean Leonard] father). But more than just that, the film articulated better than I could– then or now– the profound value of theatre, of literature and of the arts. In it, Robin Williams, through the character he played so well, showed us why the arts matter, and how a life without them can feel like a life not worth living.

My favourite scene– doubly so now that I am an academic– is the one in which the boys read the introduction to their Poetry textbooks, written by one Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.


Dr. Pritchard’s worthy introduction (which is apparently directly quoted from the venerable poetry textbook Sound and Sense by Laurence Perrine) demands that a careful reader analyse a poem’s greatness on scales of importance and perfection, and graph the poems accordingly. Obviously, the boys are told, this method will allow them to easily recognize true poetic greatness when they see it.

“Excrement.” says their teacher John Keating, played by Williams.

The boys then are asked– and in some cases forced– to tear out Dr. Prichard’s offending introduction. This accomplished, Mr. Keating tells them a secret:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

I do not know what the verse of my life in this powerful play will read, but at the moment the one I return to over and over again is this:


þæs ofereode         þisses swa mæg*

That verse is from a tenth-century Old English poem from the Exeter book called “Deor”. It has been translated many times by scholars more able than I (like, for example, here), but I prefer my own rendering:

That’s overwritten;          This also may.

Or, in longer form:

That part of the story has been overwritten;          This may be too.

The poem in its totality is one of the first to have a verse-refrain structure. In it, the poet tells a series of tales. Though these tales– of Wayland the Smith, of Theodoric the Great, of Ermanaric of the Goths and others– were well known at the time, most have since fallen into obscurity.

But the poet only tells half of each story; he stops just as the hero or heroine hits a turning point– either at the height or in the depths. Then, repeated for each tale, the refrain:

That’s overwritten;          This also may.

The characters, as the listener would well know, each suffered a turn. Wayland achieved victory over his captor, Theodoric’s empire collapsed, Ermanric’s cruel reign was overthrown. Each landed in the annals of history or became the stuff of legend. But the poet does not recount the end of their story– he simply says, at the climax: “That story changed. Your tale may too.

Finally, and maybe most compellingly, he tells his own story. He once was considered a great poet with wealthy lord for his patron. But his position was given to another, leaving him bereft. But he takes some small comfort, that his own tale will change too.

He’s not saying that things will get better. The Anglo-Saxon poets were far too stoic for that sort of optimism. But, he says, things may change– and that has to be enough.

If there might be any positive change from Robin Williams’ death, it might be that we find more and better ways to help those grappling with depression. I have found that depression– situational or chronic– is a major problem within the historical professions. In my experience, more than half of my historian friends– myself included– have struggled with situational or chronic depression at some point.

Academia chews up and spits out its young.

In my own experience of it, the worst feelings are those that come when you feel as though the situation you are in will not– can not— change; that you are trapped, and just looking for a way– any way– to escape.

þæs ofereode         þisses swa mæg

But things can change. They may not get better, but they do change. Life is an act of constant revision; the verse of our lives will continue to be written, rewritten and overwritten until we can not do so any more. It’s not much, but hopefully it’s enough to keep writing.

I have found this verse helpful in remembering that; I still do on occasion. It’s amazing that a thousand-year-old line of poetry can help keep me grounded– through the bad and the good. But, I suppose, maybe that is not so surprising after all. That is why literature, poetry, art, music– even that written by people a thousand years ago— still has the power to affect our lives. My students are often surprised at how much meaning and beauty can be found in medieval poetry and literature. Perhaps they have been so accustomed to the J. Evans Pritchards and Laurence Perrines of this world that they forget that art, poetry, or literature– from whatever age and in whatever language– is meant to grab you by the throat and not let go. In my experience, they should be more surprised if it were not meaningful, or powerful, or beautiful.  We don’t read poetry because it’s cute.

What is your verse?

A Brief Word on Depression

I’m lucky. I had help. I had family and friends who were there to help me through the worst, an understanding employer who went above and beyond, and support offered by my University. But many don’t, or are (sometimes rightly) afraid that if they seek help that they will be stigmatized, their careers threatened, or be bankrupted by a broken healthcare system. This needs to change.

If you are struggling in silence with depression, I urge you to talk to someone. Things will change for you too, but only if you continue writing.


Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

Samaritans (UK):


International suicide help numbers:

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  • South Korea:[3]
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  • Uruguay (2): 0800 8483 (free between 19 – 23 hrs)
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  • United Kingdom (1): 08457 909090
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  • United Kingdom (3): +44 (0) 8457 90 91 92
  • United Kingdom (4): 1850 60 90 90
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  • United States of America: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Zimbabwe (1): (263) 09 65000
  • Zimbabwe (2): 0800 9102

* The original is more literally translated as “That’s overridden”– meaning something which has been left behind, or ridden over (imagine, for example, having ridden over a bridge). But for myself I prefer the slight change to overwritten– not just because I (along with most people) write more than I ride. And it is a good revision, in my opinion, because it retains the meter and has assonance with the original while retaining the same sense.

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