cuckquean, quean

In the 12 July 2009 New York Times Magazine, Lisa Belkin writes:

I’m speaking as a woman here, one of those who have watched the cuckold wives (a word that technically doesn’t apply to wives; I can find nothing in the dictionary that applies to sexually betrayed women, though you would think Webster would have added one by now)

Ms. Belkin is wrong; there is a perfectly good word for a female “cuckold.” The word is cuckquean. It’s a 16th century coinage, first recorded by John Heywood in 1562.1 The word is relatively rare, which is probably why Ms. Belkin didn’t find it in her desktop dictionary (neither Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate nor American Heritage list the term). But it can be found in the OED, the Shorter OED, and in Merriam Websters Third.

Cuckquean is formed from the stem of cuckold and from quean, a disparaging word for woman, often used to refer to prostitutes or simply to brazen women. Quean is related to queen, and they share a common Germanic root, but the two words come from slightly different Old English words, cwene and cwen. As one might expect with two words that are so similar, their meanings in Old English are often difficult to distinguish from one another.

Riddle #74 in the tenth century Exeter Book manuscript is one of the early citations:

Ic wæs fæmne geong, feaxhar cwene, ond ænlic rinc on ane tid.
(I was a young maiden, a gray-haired quean, and had only one man at a time.)2

It’s interesting that a common root should develop a pair of such different words.


1Oxford English Dictionary, cuckquean, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 13 July 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50055355.

2Dictionary of Old English: A-G online, 2007, University of Toronto, s.v., cwen, cwene, accessed 13 July 2009.

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