The many layers of ‘cuckservative’

Evan Parker (Wikimedia Commons)

The buzzword of the moment is “cuckservative,” a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative.” At its heart, it’s used for a conservative who is not sufficiently conservative, who has sold out true conservatism to win votes. It’s not a compliment.

The New York Times noted it, as did The Guardian and other publications. Appropriately, BuzzFeed had an excellent piece that delves into the racial and pornographic issues attached to “cuckservative.” No doubt the facts that it rhymes with a certain naughty word and is one letter different from two others have helped its popularity.

But we don’t want to anger anyone who loves the term, or hates it. Our goal is to talk about language, remember.

The base of “cuckservative”–“cuckold”–may derive from old words for “cuckoo,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, with the origin “supposed to be found in the cuckoo’s habit of laying its egg in another bird’s nest.” It’s always been a term of emasculating derision (You cannot be much of a man! You let your wife stray!), but not usually with the vehemence of “cuckservative.” The OED says it was sometimes applied in other languages to the adulterer, as well as to the adulteress’ husband, but not so in English, where it first appeared about 1250.

You never hear what the female version of a “cuckold” is, though there are probably at least as many women whose husbands have strayed as there are men with adulterous wives. But there is one: a “cuckquean,” using the “cuck” prefix attached to a word originally meaning “a woman.” By the time “cuckquean” appeared around 1560, the OED says, “quean” had become a derisive term for “a bold or impudent woman; a hussy; spec a prostitute.”

A man whose spouse strays is merely not much of a man; a woman whose husband has strayed is a hussy? Hmmm. No comment on whether there’s an inherent sexism in that.

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Both “cuckold” and “cuckquean” have taken on pornographic definitions in modern times, referring to the pleasure of watching one’s straying spouse actually, um, straying. (We’re not linking to those definitions, deliberately.)

That adds even more layers to “cuckservative,” which has had a short but hot life. It has a Wikipedia page, created July 28, 2015, by “a group dedicated to improving Wikipedia’s coverage of topics related to conservatism.” That page was nominated for deletion a day later. In Wikipedia parlance, the outcome of the discussion of whether to delete “cuckservative” was “Trainwreck,” or no consensus could be reached in the clamor of the debate. An Urban Dictionary definition was added July 29, by someone who has entered no other definitions. It’s a popular hashtag on Twitter (often attached to racist, sexist, and otherwise “ist” tweets). Its Twitter appearances peaked even before the Republican candidates’ Aug. 6 debates, and it’s had an uneven presence on Twitter since.

So, like so many other internet memes, “cuckservative” is just as likely to flame out as it is to endure. If you like it, don’t put all your eggs in someone else’s nest.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.