English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

What’s a female cuckold?

Q: Pat said on WNYC the other day that she didn’t know of a name for a female cuckold. Ooh, I know one! A Salon article refers to the “unsurprisingly underused Canterbury Tales-tastic term cuckquean.”

A. Ooh, you’re right! There is a term for a female cuckold, “cuckquean,” though it showed up a couple of hundred years after Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as an obsolete noun, which explains why we could find “cuckquean” in only one standard dictionary, Webster’s Third Unabridged.

The OED says “cuckquean” is derived from the stem of ”cuckold” and the noun “quean,” which meant simply a woman in Old English but later was a term of disparagement, like “hussy” or “prostitute.”

(Though “quean” and “queen” sound alike and have similar prehistoric roots, they’re separate words in English.)

Oxford’s earliest example of the usage (spelled “cookqueane”) is from a 1562 collection of proverbs and epigrams by the English writer John Heywood:

“And where reason and customs (they say) asoords, / Alwaie to let the loosers haue their woords, / Ye make hir a cookqueane, and consume hir good.”

The dictionary’s only modern example of the usage is from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922):

“A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning.”

(We’ve expanded on both of those OED citations to provide more context.)

If you’d like to read more, we discussed “cuckold” a few years ago in a post about whether the term “horny” is related to “horns of the cuckold.”

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