The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “horny” a dirty word?

Q: I often hear the word “horny” used where I think it’s inappropriate. To me, it’s crude slang, but apparently not everything thinks so. Your comments? Also, I assume “horny” is somehow derived from the idea of a cuckold having “horns”? But isn’t a wife who cheats the horny one, not the husband who’s cheated on?

A: Let’s go straight to your original question. Is the adjective “horny” (in the sense of sexually aroused or desiring sex) off limits in polite company?

Well, it is, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which describes “horny” as vulgar slang.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) doesn’t raise an eyebrow about using “horny” in its sexual sense.

I go along with American Heritage’s assessment. “Horny” may have lost a bit of its old raunchiness, but in my opinion it’s still inappropriate outside one’s circle of friends.

As for your other question, “horny” and “horns of a cuckold” aren’t related. Here’s the history.

The use of “horny” to mean aroused or lecherous is relatively recent. The Oxford English Dictionary says this meaning of the word is “chiefly used of a man.” (I think that last remark needs some updating, but never mind.)

The OED‘s first published citation for this usage comes from Albert Barrère and C. G. Leland’s A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant (1889): “Horny, lecherous, in a state of sexual desire, in rut.”

The adjective probably comes from a much earlier use of the noun “horn” to mean an erection or an erect penis. Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) defined “horn” as a slang term for “a temporary priapism.”

The OED, in its entry on “horn,” describes the sexual use of the word in expressions like “get the horn” or “have the horn” this way: “Not in polite use.”

As for the expression “horns of a cuckold,” it’s unrelated to all this priapism business. Cuckolds and horns have been linked for centuries, the OED says, and the phrase appears in many European languages.

In German, “cuckold” (hahnrei) originally meant a capon, or castrated rooster. The “horns of a cuckold,” according to the OED, is thought to be a reference “to the practice formerly prevalent of planting or engrafting the spurs of a castrated cock on the root of the excised comb, where they grew and became horns, sometimes of several inches long.”

Thus, “cuckolds were fancifully said to wear horns on the brow.” (Why this was done to the poor roosters I can’t say. Perhaps all the scar tissue on their heads protected them from being hen-pecked.)

But back to human cuckolds. The idea here is that a man who’s been cheated on by his wife is figuratively unmanned, on the analogy of a castrated fowl.

The analogy, if not the literal expression “horns of a cuckold,” appears in a loose Middle English translation by John Lydgate of Boccaccio’s The Fall of Princes (1430s): “A certeyn knyht Giges … to speke pleyn inglissh made hym a cokold. … I sholde ha said how that he hadde an horn.”

I looked for an updated modern English translation and couldn’t find one. But you get the idea.

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