With Meta’s new social media platform Threads rapidly growing — it registered more than 100 million users within a week of its launch — tensions between Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter owner Elon Musk reached new heights on Sunday (June 9). Responding to a screenshot of a Threads conversation between Zuckerberg and fast food restaurant company Wendy’s, Musk tweeted, “Zuck is a cuck”.
The word “cuck” is short for “cuckold”, a slur, used to mock a man whose wife has cheated on him. Cuckold has been part of the English lexicon since at least the 13th Century, appearing in the works of numerous writers and poets, including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, who used the term to attack the masculinity of certain male characters.
In modern times, however, it took on a sexual identity as cuckold surfaced as a genre of online pornography that is loaded with racial tensions. But what brought the term from the dark corners of the Internet to the mainstream was the rise of former US President Donald Trump in 2016. His supporters and white nationalists embraced the word cuck, using it against their opponents. Whatever the connotations though, the insult remains deeply rooted in a misogynist idea — a man must be able to control his woman.
Tracing the roots of ‘cuckold’
Etymologically speaking, the term cuckold comes from an old French word, cucu, for a cuckoo bird. The females of some species of cuckoo lay their eggs in the nest of other birds. When the cuckoo’s eggs hatch, it murders the other hatchlings by pushing them over the edge, leaving its own offspring to be raised by the host bird. This makes the host bird a “cuckold”.
“So, with that whiff of unfaithfulness, the carefree bird gave us the word “cuckold”, which came in the Middle Ages to mean a husband with an errant wife,” a 2013 report by the BBC noted.
Soon after, the term became a mainstay in English literature. For instance, it was famously used by Chaucer in his ‘The Miller’s Tale’. The story’s plot involves an angry, jealous husband, John, his new wife, Alison, and a young Oxford scholar, Nicholas, who concocts a devious scheme to entice the wife. Describing the married couple, Chaucer writes: “She was eighteen years of age. Jealous [John] 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.”
The word features in Shakespeare’s works also. Like John, many of Shakespare’s characters too believed they were cuckolds, meaning their wives were cheating on them. The idea took centre stage in Othello, in which the eponymous protagonist smothers his wife, Desdemona, on their marriage bed, on the suspicion of her being unfaithful.
In a scene that takes place before the murderous act, Iago, the play’s antagonist, who manipulates Othello into believing his wife’s infidelity, warns him against jealousy by saying: “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on./ The cuckold lives in bliss/ Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger”. Some scenes later, Othello, imagining himself to be a cuckold, screams, “A horned man’s a monster and a beast.”
According to an analysis published by lifestyle website InsideHook, in English literature, there are plenty of references to cuckolds having horns. Although it isn’t clear where the idea came from, in many cultures, a horn gesture at a man means calling him a cuckold. “Remember the harmless bunny ears you used to make behind your buddy on picture day? That is also rooted in cuckold-shaming,” the analysis noted.
How ‘cuck’ became the far-right’s favourite insult
Much before the term cuckold gained political potency, it was, and still is, quite popular on porn websites. The word became synonymous with a genre of porn in which usually a white man impassively watches his wife having sex with, more often than not, a black man. The whole act plays “to a white man’s insecurities about his “possessions” being taken from him” by black men, the GQ magazine reported.
By 2014, the slur began to be used on Reddit also, especially among misogynist communities, where it was used to mock men, who were “foolish” enough to trust women. Subsequently, the shortened version of cuckold emerged later in 2014 when the Gamergate movement, an online harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry, took off. Cuck was used to insult the ex-boyfriend of games journalist and developer Zoe Quinn, who was the first target of the campaign.
But once Trump won the New Hampshire primary in February 2016, the word took centre stage like never before — it achieved political significance. White American nationalists started to use the slur “cuckservatives” to ridicule those conservatives who were considered too moderate. It was first used against Republican leader Jeb Bush, who was seen as weak and effeminate by Trump supporters. Later, cuck was commonly used to insult Hilary Clinton supporters. This established the word as one of the most favoured insults used by white nationalists.
Why the word cuck resonates with the far-right
Just like in the realm of pornography, cuck has explicit racial connotations in the political context too. It showcases the insecurities of white nationalists who fear they are “inadequate, sexually or otherwise, and that inadequacy will lead to the loss of the things that are important” to them, another analysis by GQ magazine said. While in porn, it is a woman that they fear losing to black men, in real life, it is not just women but also their country and dominance.
With Barack Obama serving as US President for two terms, women and immigrants participating in the workforce, and the emergence of black culture and political correctness, white nationalists have increasingly become worried about losing their hegemony in society.
Therefore, when they or anyone else calls someone a cuck, they are actually exposing their own fears. “They’re telling you that you’re allowing something to happen that will compromise your own power, that your possessions will be taken from you… But, like all bullies, what they really mean is that you’re chipping away at their own power and challenging their supremacy, the GQ magazine analysis pointed out.