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Cuckold derives from the cuckoo bird, alluding to the alleged habit of the female in changing its mate frequently and authentic (in some species) practice of laying its eggs in other nests within its community. The association is common in medieval folklore, literature, and iconography. The original old English was "kukewold". It was borrowed from Old French "cuccault", which was made up of "cuccu" (old French for the cuckoo bird itself) plus the pejorative suffix – "ault", indicating the named person was being taken advantage of as by a cuckoo bird.
English usage first appears about 1250 in the satirical and polemical poem "The Owl and the Nightingale". The term was clearly regarded as embarrassingly direct, as evident in John Lydgate's "Fall of Princes" (ca. 1440). In the late 14th century, the term also appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer's Miller's Tale. Shakespeare's poetry often referenced cuckolds, with several of his characters suspected they had become one.
The female equivalent cuckquean first appears in English literature in 1562, adding a female suffix to the "cuck".
One often overlooked subtlety of the word is that it implies that the husband is deceived, that he is unaware of his wife's unfaithfulness and may not know until the arrival or growth of a child plainly not his (as with Cuckoo birds.) Another word, wittol, which substitutes "wete" (meaning witting or knowing) for the first part of the word, designates a man aware of and reconciled to his wife's infidelity and first appears in 1520.

Unlike the traditional usage of the word, in fetish use cuckold is complicit in their partner's sexual "infidelity" and takes masochistic sexual pleasure in it. Cuckolds in the fetish sense also need not be male, and need not be married, although some level of pair-bonding intimacy or commitment in their relationship is necessary. Among those who are active in the fetish world, the pose of reluctance—the victimisation of the cuckold—is a major element of the fetish/paraphilia, this may be the reason for the use of the term "cuckold," with its connotations of victimisation and inadequacy.
In the fetish cuckolding subculture, it is most common for the female to take on the sexual Domination role and the male to take on the Submission role, however, female subs, sometimes referred to as cuckqueans, also exist. The wife who enjoys cuckolding her husband is frequently called a "hotwife," or a "cuckoldress" if the man is more submissive.
Fetish cuckolding can have a wide range of expression, from pillow-talk fantasy between monogamous partners to extreme "Alternative Lifestyles," depending on the couple. It is also often mixed with other Fetishes, such as Voyeurism, denial, etc. Since a couple may not share the cuckold fetish, some may turn to a form of virtual cuckolding through phone or internet sites often at an advertised price.
Cuckolding can also be mixed with other non-monogamous relationship arrangements such as Swinging, wife-swapping, open relationships, and Polyamorous couples, etc. It is distinguished from these concepts in that the cuckold's thrill in their partner's acts is specifically masochistic; as such it is considered a category of BDSM fetish.