Cuck—the linguistic backstory to the alt-right’s favourite insult

A word coined to describe the disturbing behaviour of the cuckoo has evolved, via the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, into a white nationalist term of contempt
April 5, 2023

The gentle air of spring carries the sweet first call of the cuckoo. It is a sound that has captivated cultures for centuries, signalling the end of the dark days of winter. Yet the innocent birdsong belies a cunning nature. The cuckoo is the most famous cheat in the feathered kingdom: never building her own nest, the female cuckoo instead lays her eggs in those of other birds. When the cuckoo’s egg hatches, the chick sets to work on murdering the other hatchlings by pushing them over the edge, leaving the cuckoo chick to be reared alone by the host bird. Thus the female cuckoo has succeeded in “cuckoldry”, her victim a “cuckold”.

In the late 13th century, the meaning of cuckold extended to mock a man whose wife had sex with other men; this act of shaming was a consistent theme in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Eventually, the word was shortened to “cuck”, while “cuckquean” came about to denote the female equivalent.

Lexicographers thought cuck had fallen out of use, but the internet is the gift that keeps on giving. Online, cuck has become the biggest insult you can give a man regarded as weak or inadequate. The fact it also sounds like a blend of our two most expressive swear words can only help to cement its place within the arsenal of satisfying insults.

Cuck first gained newfound popularity among incels and others during Gamergate, an online hate campaign in 2014 that targeted female gamers and those advocating for greater diversity within gaming culture. Any man who spoke out against the doxing and rape threats that female gamers received was labelled a cuck, someone who capitulates to a woman.

Since then, the word has become a favoured expression among American white nationalists, who use it to insult “cuckservatives”, conservative politicians considered too moderate. Liberal Republicans, who some call “libtards”, are said to be “cucked” by the left. A “beta cuck” is the opposite of an admired “alpha male”.

While the word carries explicitly racist connotations in white supremacist online spaces, it has also found its way into the mainstream via pornography. Videos of men aroused by watching their female partners having sex with other (usually black) men are known as “cuck porn”; “reverse cuck” is when a woman is humiliated by her male partner while she watches him have sex with someone else. According to Pornhub, reverse cuck was the fourth highest-trending search last year, up by 396 per cent on the previous.

Will the innocent first call of the cuckoo ever sound the same, I wonder?