Words at Play

Your Cheatin' Words

Obscure words of infidelity and its aftermath


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Definition: “One that is false to the bed; one that ranges or swerves from one bed to another.” (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)

Bedswerver appears to have come from the fertile pen of William Shakespeare, who may or may not have coined the word (we have no evidence of it being used prior to its appearance in the Bard’s Winter’s Tale). It did not gain much traction in the language in common use over the next few centuries. However, lexicographers have long had a soft spot for Shakespeare, and so have included words from his works even if they lacked currency. Samuel Johnson entered the word in his 1755 dictionary, from where it was copied into the dictionaries of Thomas Sheridan (1789) and John Walker (1791).

One of the few non-lexicographic works in which bedswerver does appear at this time is, oddly enough, Joseph Neef’s 1813 treatise The Method of Instructing Children Rationally in the Arts of Writing and Reading: “She told me weeping and groaning that thou art a bedswerver.”

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Definition: a woman whose husband is unfaithful to her

There are times when the number of words for a certain thing does not quite reflect the character of humanity itself. There are dozens of words in English synonymous with cuckold (“a man who has an unfaithful partner”)—to be honest, we really don't need that many—yet, for a woman in the same position, there is but a single word.

We are lexicographers, not sociologists, and usually confine our opinions to the realm of words, rather than social matters. But even in this restricted role we feel comfortable saying that this ratio is not exactly reflective of the way people actually behave.

The Kings three Sonnes had notice of their Fathers Leiman now,
So had the Queene, and the yof such coriuing disallowe.
Came I from France Queene Dowager, quoth she, to pay so deere
For bringing him so great a wealth as to be Cuckquean'd heere?
Am I so old a woman, he so young a wanton growen,
As that I may not please, that pleas'd, and still might with his owen?
— William Warner, Albions England, 1597

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Definition: a man who is aware of and submits to his wife's infidelity

Wittol shares part of its origin with cuckold, attaching what is now an archaic sense of wit (“to know”) onto part of cokewold (an older form of cuckold). Wittol has also been used in the general sense of “fool.”

You reckless sinner, cease!
Think me, and make me, whatsoe'er you will;
I will not be called wittol to my teeth.
— George Henry Boker, Königsmark, 1869

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Definition: a boisterous procession intended to ridicule an unfaithful spouse or a shrewish wife often with effigies and a mock serenade

Here is a friendly reminder of how much we as a society have advanced: we no longer publicly tease people whose spouses have cheated on them. Okay, we don't usually, at least. And when we do it's hardly ever with a parade or “boisterous procession." In addition to the public spectacle, skimmington may refer to “one publicly impersonating and ridiculing a henpecked or cuckolded husband or his shrewish or unfaithful wife.” Rude.

Bantam: But has she beaten him?
Shakestone: Grievously broke his head in I know not how many places: of which the hoydens have taken notice, and will have a Skimington on horse-backe presently. Looke ye, here comes both plaintiffe and defendant.
— Thomas Heywood, The Late Lancashire Witches, 1634

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Definition: born of adultery

Bastard is a useful word in many settings and has a wide array of forms, but we recognize that not everyone shares this sentiment. Should you have need of such a word but circumstances (or your own sense of decorum) make the B-word unpalatable, you might perhaps consider adulterine. In addition to its adjectival sense adulterine may also function as a noun (“one who is born of adultery”), or may be used to mean “spurious” or “illegal.”

The children of the Marquis de Boefle, and those of the Marquis de Langey, are all, considered in a certain point of view, no other than bastards and adulterines; and, under another, they are a legitimate offspring, entitled to the rights, the honours, and the privileges of society.
— M. de Lignac, A Physical View of Man and Woman in a State of Marriage, With Anatomical Engravings, 1798

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Definition: law : expressed or implied forgiveness by a husband or a wife of a breach of marital duty (as adultery) by the other with an implied condition that the offense shall not be repeated

Condonation, which comes from the Latin word condonare (“to give away, absolve”) has been in use with a general meaning since the beginning of the 17th century. The word’s initial meaning hewed close to its etymological origins: “pardon of an offense : voluntary overlooking or implied forgiveness of an offense by treating the offender as if it had not been committed.” By the late 18th century condonation had worked its way into the terminilogy of the legal profession.

Condonation must be given with knowledge, and also with the intention to forgive. Nothing is clearer in this case than that Mr. Ellis did not intend to forgive his wife.
Central Law Journal, Vol. 33, 31 Jul. 1891

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Definition: a fine for adultery or fornication

Very few dictionaries still include words with “a fine for sexual relations” in their definitions, since we don’t really bother with this sort of thing quite so much as we used to. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, is of a historical bent (including words which may not have been in common use for hundreds of years now), and thus has something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to such terms.

In addition to lecherwite they include the even more specific lairwite (which is especially used when the person with whom one adulterates is a bondswoman), buttock-mail (a good, all-purpose word for fines accrued from sexual shenanigans), and several others that our fingers blush to type.

…or that the Lord or Lady of the Manor of Coveny in the County of Cambridge, should have for every Fornication or Adultery committed in the Manor, a Lecherwyte, or penalty of 5 s. ….
— Fabian Philipps. The Mistaken Recompense, 1664




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