mari complaisant – wittol


Cuckoos are no match for local reed warblers (BBC)

Cuckoos are famed for laying their eggs in host species’ nests, leaving unwitting “foster” birds to raise their chicks. Photograph from Cuckoos are no match for local reed warblers (BBC).




The French expression un mari complaisant, which literally means an accommodating husband, denotes a husband tolerant of his wife’s adultery. This sense seems to date from the early 18th century: the earliest occurrence that I could find is in Avanture nouvelle, a story published in Le Courier politique et galant of 25th January 1720. In this story, a husband agrees to his wife’s rendezvous with her lover.

In English, the expression seems to have first been used by Thomas Wyse in The Continental Traveller’s Oracle; or, Maxims for Foreign Locomotion (1828):

Dancing begets a toilette. Madame knows, though you do not, that dress is as necessary to a body, as a body to a soul. It is time you should be illuminated, and the process of conviction is instantaneous. Madame throws upon your desk, or ‘dejeuner’, the addresses of all the ‘modistes’, ‘ci-devantes’ and ‘regnantes’, of the Rue Vivienne. The alarming name of Madame Le Roy closes the list. You are invited to hold yourself in readiness to follow her. [...] When consulted, approve; if not, consent to be sneered at by the ‘modiste’ as a mere Briton, as little acquainted with dress as his ancestors,—to be tittered at by her girls, attacked by your wife, disobeyed by your daughters, and voted a brute bear, without the chance of rescuing a single louis, by all the rest of the world. Now it is very delightful to have the opposite character, and to be quoted as a ‘mari complaisant’, in the best sense of the word.

In Royal Dictionary, English and French (1854), Professors Fleming and Tibbins thus defined and translated the English noun wittol:

a man who knows his wife’s infidelity and submits to it; a tamed cuckold: mari complaisant, débonnaire.

The word wittol appeared in late Middle English in the form wetewold. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1928), this noun is apparently formed after cokewold (modern cuckold) with substitution, for the first part of the word, of wete, that is to say the modern verb to wit, meaning to have knowledge.

However, wittol might originally have been a particular use of witwall (formerly also witwol, witwal, etc.), a variant of woodwall*, denoting the green woodpecker, from a belief that it hatched the cuckoo’s eggs and reared the cuckoo’s young as its own. The addition of the notion of knowing and submitting may be due to the popular association with wit, which produced the etymology wit-all, meaning know-all. The English-Latin dictionary of the 1715 edition of Linguæ Latinæ Liber Dictionarius Quadripartitus, originally edited in 1673 by Adam Littleton (1627-94), contains the following:

A witwal, a bird. Picus.
A witwal, or wittal, a witting cuckold. Cornutus tacitus, curruca.

This dictionary mentions the Latin cornutus, which means horned, the husband of an adulteress being traditionally represented as having animal horns, which are attributes symbolising shame and ridicule. This is why Spanish cornudo, Italian cornuto and French cornard (composed of corne, horn, and the pejorative suffix -ard) mean cuckold.

This dictionary also mentions the Late Latin curruca, thus defined by Francis Holyoak in his Latin-English dictionary (1612):

The bird which hatcheth the cuckowes egges; also a cuckold.

Similarly, the French noun cocu, meaning cuckold, is simply a variant of coucou (from Old French cucu, coqu, etc.), meaning cuckoo. The origin of the sense cuckold is from the cuckoo’s habit of laying its egg in another bird’s nest. The English noun cuckold, which appeared in Middle English in such forms as cukeweld and cokewold, is an adaptation of Old French cucuault, from cucu, which is the origin of English cuckoo.

French coucou is from Latin cuculus, but its phonetical development has been influenced by the bird’s call. This Latin noun is also the origin of Italian cuculo.

Portuguese and Spanish have cuco, a word perhaps derived from Late Latin cucus or simply imitative. (Spanish also uses the diminutive cuclillo, which has the additional sense of cuckold.)

In Greek, κόκκῡξ (kokkux) denoted the bird and κόκκυ (kokku) its call. These words are perhaps related to the verb κωκύω (kokuo), to shriek, wail.

The native Old English name was géac, cognate with the obsolete German Gauch and the Old Norse gaukr, which is the origin of the Scots and northern English noun gowk. Like Gauch, gowk has the figurative sense of a foolish person.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1893) explained:

In many languages a tendency has been shown from time to time to abandon inherited forms of this bird’s name, which, even though originally echoic, have under the operation of phonetic changes gradually ceased to be so, in order to go back anew to the call of the bird. Thus, since the 15th century, Gauch has in German been superseded by Kuckuck, from Low German Kukuk, Middle Dutch cucûc, Dutch koekoek, a form founded upon the call.


(* The noun woodwall is apparently from wood, but the second element is obscure. It has been suggested to be cognate with Welsh and to mean foreigner.)

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