CU Boulder graduate student in linguistics applies painstaking analysis to alt-right, white-supremacist groups that popularized a clipped version of an antiquated word
In 2017, TV late-night host Stephen Colbert mocked then-White House advisor Steve Bannon for calling Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, a “cuck.” Colbert dubbed Bannon’s shenanigans a TCM, or “total cuck move.”
That joke might have drawn as much confusion as laughter, because the meaning of “cuck” can be hard to discern.
Maureen Kosse, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder, has spent years studying the evolution of “cuck” in “alt-right,” or far-right, white-supremacist movements. She contends that those who use the word “cuck” are telegraphing their belief that Jewish people seek to oppress and eliminate white people and that Black people want to overtake whites in a “white genocide” or a “great replacement.”
Kosse argues that “cuck” and similar terms are “disguised as innocuous” but are actually linguistic weapons employing misogynist and racist “humor” in the alt-right’s efforts to radicalize others.
Kosse’s analysis of the alt-right’s use of “cuck” appeared in the academic journal Gender and Language last summer under the title: “‘Ted Cruz cucks again’: the insult term cuck as an alt-right masculinist signifier.”
As Kosse notes, “cuck” stems from the antiquated term “cuckold,” a noun meaning a husband whose wife is unfaithful.
“Cuck” became widely used after a 2014 controversy in which women working in the video-game industry were subject to a campaign of harassment, and a far-right media personality called one whistleblower’s husband a “cuck.”
The epithet then proliferated in explicitly racist subreddit channels and took on the added implication of “white genocide” or a “great replacement,” in which a “Jewish cabal covertly encourages white women to have children with non-white men in order to eliminate the genetic purity of white men,” Kosse writes.
That conspiracy theory has been cited in several terrorist manifestoes, including that of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooter in 2019 and the Buffalo, New York, grocery-store mass-murderer, who targeted Black people.
“I argue that the link between ‘cuck’ and white genocide comes from a crucial intertextual relationship that remains under-analyzed in the literature: the imagery provided by interracial cuck pornography,” Kosse writes.
Using a sociocultural linguistic analysis that combines linguistic anthropology and construction grammar, she traces how a misogynistic meme evolved to take on racist meanings. She explains how “alt-right memes such as ‘cuck’ spread covertly racist online discourse by cloaking medieval sexual logic and racial anger in misogynistic humor.”
Additionally, she reports how cuckoldry evolved from its medieval origins to its “racialized appropriation in pornography,” and analyzes data she collected from alt-right discussion groups since 2015 to show that constructions in which the term appears “convey racist meanings by recalling the imagery of interracial cuck pornography.”
Additionally, she observes: “Such constructions depend on a psychosexual metaphor that positions patriotism as protecting the nation from nonwhites and represents political capitulation as sexual shame.”
Kosse’s data comes from personal observations of several U.S. alt-right and far-right digital platforms, including Reddit (/r/altright and /r/Identitarian), Voat, 4chan, 8chan/8kun and The Daily Stormer.
In an October 2022 interview on a podcast called The Vocal Fries, Kosse noted that “cuck” was used in ways that required a linguistic “frame analysis.” The term “cuck” has a complicated frame structure, because it’s related to historical notions of ownership of women and consent, she told the podcasters.
As she studied the use of “cuck,” she said, “I noticed it being used in ways that do not seem to be immediately related to the idea of a cuckold. I had trouble getting from A to B.”
That was especially true when she saw the phrase, “Ted Cruz cucks again,” a sentence that prompted her to conclude that, “Something really strange is going on here.”
In that case, “cucks” is used as an intransitive verb, meaning that it has no object. (“I exist,” has no object and is an intransitive construction, while “I dropped a ball” has an object—ball—and is transitive.)
Kosse also noticed other unusual formations, phrases like “feminists cucking for Israel again” or “cucking for Muslims again.” In those cases, “cucking” was being used like “shilling.”
As she told The Vocal Fries podcast, she noticed that whoever is doing the cucking or whoever is being cucked, “It is happening because there is some outward force causing it to happen. You’re doing this because someone else tells you. You’re being humiliated, and you love it because you’re following what your overlords say.”
She continued: “In my data, I see it most frequently used against conservatives. It’s mostly a conservative-on-conservative insult for people like Ted Cruz, who are not considered sufficiently white supremacist enough for the alt-right faction.”
In her article, Kosse cites several examples of intransitive use, including “Trump cucks in Israel,” a usage that she identifies as coming from Holocaust deniers, and “Trump cucks on immigration, promises amnesty for illegal DACA invaders.” In these cases, she notes, the verb “cuck” is followed by a preposition denoting an arena in which the subject behaves like a cuckold: “in Israel” or “on immigration.”
“This syntactic pattern is similar to other verbs of submission, e.g., to give up on something, which supports the argument that ‘cuck’ is a syntactic blend,” she writes.
In the case of “Ted Cruz cucks again” and similar examples, Kosse employs a Construction Grammar framework to observe that when “previously transitive verbs” are used intransitively, readers must resolve “conflict between linguistic cues which do not ordinarily compete during interpretation.”
Thus, she notes, “Ted Cruz cucks again” implies that Cruz has chosen to “cuck himself by acting against his own best interests.”
“As revealed across the online data I collected, those ‘best interests’ are what the alt-right perceives to be best for ‘white people’—namely, resistance to the cultural influence of a Jewish global elite whose support for social programs (e.g., immigration, welfare, feminism, taxation) is thought to undermine white European populations in the West,” Kosse writes.
Additionally, she observes, those who participate in “alt-right and manosphere digital spaces may be more likely to infer a racialized reading to ‘cuck’ given the preponderance of pornography and anti-Black racist discourse in their online spaces.”
All of this can make it hard to discern what a person using the word “cuck” means by it. But this is not a drawback but a feature of far-right discourse, Kosse argues, noting that the ambiguity “affords alt-righters a degree of plausible deniability as they circulate ‘cuck’ into other domains.”
While the meaning is ambiguous to many, Kosse argues that it is “particularly legible to those the alt-right seeks to recruit: young, online, white men.”
“Many people from across the political spectrum have casually adopted the word ‘cuck.’ There may be some awareness of the context around cuckoldry, cuck pornography or replacement theory in these usages, but we can also reasonably assume that many people do not know of the word's connotations within the alt-right,” Kosse says, continuing:
“Still others have adopted the term ironically, or to weaponize the concept against alt righters. I would say that regardless of any knowledge or intention, all usages of ‘cuck’ evoke racist and misogynistic frames of reference that are characteristic of alt-right discourses. In my opinion as a linguist, there is no way to appropriate expressions like ‘cuck’ without also circulating an alt-right perspective of the world (one that has already had enormous real-world consequences, as numerous white nationalist mass-murderers have cited replacement theory in their manifestos).”
Cay Leytham-Powell contributed reporting for this story.