Naming the Cheated


By Philologos

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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Paul Baron of Stony Creek, Conn., wants to know if there is a Yiddish word for “cuckold.”

One can, of course, speak in Yiddish of a “betrayed husband,” just as one can do in English, in which cuckold is a semi-archaic word no longer much used for a man cheated on by his wife. However, the only “Yiddish” word I know of that has the tonal quality of cuckold is really more of a Hebrew one, although like just about any Hebrew word it can be pressed into service in Yiddish in a pinch. This is ba’al-karnayim, which means, literally, “a man with horns.”

Ba’al-karnayim first occurs in medieval Hebrew — specifically, in the Mah.barot Emanuel, a large and sometimes bawdy work of poetry and rhymed prose by the late 13th-and-early-14th-century Italian Jewish writer Emmanuel of Rome. (References to cuckolded husbands as having or growing horns occur in Hebrew sources even earlier, one of them being a letter written in the 12th century by Maimonides.) Emmanuel was translating the Italian cornuto, “horned,” which means cuckold in Italian and has close equivalents in other European languages — Spanish cornudo and cornupeta (a “horned bull”), Dutch horendrager (“horn wearer”), Polish rogacz (from rog, “horn”), Greek keratàs (from kérato, “horn”), etc. Even in many languages in which the word for cuckold has a different root meaning, there are expressions for being cuckolded that refer to horns. Thus, we have French faire les cornes à quelqu’un, “to give someone horns” or to cuckold him; German Hoerner aufsetzen, “to put horns” on someone, and so on.

English had similar idioms, as is evidenced by numerous lines in the plays of Shakespeare — who, for instance, has Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” speak of the devil looking “like an old cuckold with horns on his head.” The “cuckold’s sign,” made by pointing with a hand whose pinky and index finger are extended to resemble horns while the ring and middle fingers are folded under with the thumb, also was widespread in many European countries and is still in use in Italy and Sicily. Indeed, it is probable the “donkey ears” that practical jokers make with their fingers in photographs are the descendants of cuckold’s horns, too, put behind the heads of the unsuspecting to jest that their wives are unfaithful.

Just why horns have been connected so widely with cuckolds is an interesting question. The explanation would seem to lie in the association of horns with male sexuality, no doubt because they accompany sexual maturity in many ruminants, which use their horns and antlers as dueling weapons during the rutting season. (This is why, too, in parts of Asia, the ground horns of various animals mixed into food or drink are considered a powerful aphrodisiac.) Perhaps cuckolds have symbolic horns because they are “horny” — i.e., itching with sexual energy that has no outlet, since as their wives are off consorting with other males; perhaps their horns are not their own but symbolically those of the rivals who have bested them, so that “to give someone horns” originally meant to take away someone’s wife in sexual combat.

Languages whose words for cuckold are unrelated to horns also tend to derive them from the animal kingdom. The word cuckold itself derives from old French cucuault (modern French cocu), cuckoo bird, which has to do with the cuckoo’s being what ornithologists call a “brood parasite,” a bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests rather than building its own, so that its fledglings are hatched and raised by surrogate mothers. The cuckold in this analogy is not the cuckoo itself, but rather the cuckoo’s victim — the husband who has been “cuckooed” by unwittingly raising another man’s child as his own.

In German the word for a cuckold is Hahnrei — from old German hanreyge, a capon or castrated rooster. Kapaun in German, on the other hand, refers only to the gelded bird and its meat, as does its Yiddish form of kap-hon. (This is a nice case of folk etymology, for although Kapaun comes from the Latin word for “rooster,” capo, Yiddish speakers interpreted its second syllable as the Yiddish word for rooster, hon.) But Hahnrei did not make it into Yiddish at all, while kap-hon, as in German, does not have the meaning of cuckold.

One can only speculate as to the reason that Yiddish had no indigenous word of its own for a cuckold when practically every other European language possessed one. The most likely explanation is that in traditional Eastern European Jewish society, adulterous women, while by no means nonexistent, were relatively rare. Yiddish folk culture did not make the husbands of adulterers the stock figures or butts of popular humor that they were elsewhere, so there was no need for a special word for them. And if you wanted to speak of a Jewish cuckold anyway for literary or rhetorical purposes, ba’al-karnayim always would do.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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