Slurred Lines: How "cuck" took over Reddit
I first came across the word "cuck" in mid-2015, when a video of a speech I gave at the Oxford Union on the topic of freedom of speech and the "right to offend" received a modicum of negative attention and garnered a number of comments calling me, among other things, a cuck. At the time, I assumed it was simply some new term that the right/libertarians/4chan users/redpillers had come up with as a way to mock people who supported broadly progressive causes, much like "SJW" or "snowflake" (both of which I was also called (quite a lot)).
But the term has a more complex history and spread than that. The Wikipedia article suggests that the word is short for "cuckservative", a term of abusefor conservatives who have bought into key premises of left liberalism. The Southern Poverty Law Centre says that it is meant to "depict conservatives who don't kowtow to ultra-right political views as inept traitors to the conservative base that elected them". They argue that cuck has racist undertones, implying that compromise on immigration and multiculturalism is analogous to a white husband surrendering his white wife to a black man. They point out that cuckold pornography, which features men being aroused by the humiliation of their wives having sex with other men, often features black men specifically.
Whilst many sites claim that the origins of the word are shrouded in mystery, an article on Mel Magazine details its journey from a 12th century poem, through to Shakespeare's Othello, and then finally its appearance in the relative mainstream during GamerGate. The article goes on to argue that the word reached common parlance around July 2015, just after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, primarily drawing on data from Twitter. They note that it is commonly used on /r/The_Donald, probably the largest pro-Trump community on the web.
At the Digital Methods Initiative Summer School, we wanted to ask the question "where did the word 'cuck' come from, and can we trace its usage and spread over time?". The results, described below, I think provide flesh to the bones of the argument coming out of the one interview and Twitter data in Mel Magazine.
Who says "cuck", and why?
We are lucky enough to have access to a database of every comment ever made on Reddit. This is an incredible resource that takes a little bit of know-how and some persistence to extract data from, but it's worth persevering. I used Google's Big Query tool to query the database and retrieve all instances of the word "cuck" appearing in any comment in any subreddit, from August 2014 until May 2017.
Initially, I only looked at comments that had over 100 upvotes. The search returned ~11,000 items. I first performed a manual inspection of the first 100 returns in order to understand the broad thrust of sentiment behind them. The data suggests that there are only an extremely limited number of subreddits in which the word "cuck" is used as a serious slur. The_Donald is the primary actor here, along with associated alt-right subreddits (though exactly which subreddits these are is to be the subject offurther inquiry). In nearly all other instances, "cuck" was used ironically, or tongue-in-cheek, or as a means of deriding those who might use it seriously. This provides necessary context to the figures which follow.
The graph above shows a non-normalised view of the frequency of "cuck" appearing in comments from August 2014 (around the very beginning of the GamerGate controversy) until May 2017 (the most recent dataset available).
The_Donald emerges as the clear leader in the "cuck" table, immediately beating out all other subreddits for the highest volume of cuck-comments in the first month it became big (February 2016, after Trump won the New Hampshire primary). The volume of comments steadily increased until the end of 2016, following the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, and has diminished since. This could be in part because the comments from that period have had longer to be subject to mass upvoting, but it could also reflect diminished activity on the subreddit since then. I would favour the latter hypothesis, on the basis that Reddit's algorithm rapidly reprioritises showing comment threads based on how long they have been active, such that the vast majority of upvotes tend to come within a few days of a post being live.
Instead what appears to have happened is that there was a huge jump in anti-progressive posting in November 2016. This is corroborated by another analysis I performed of the term "SJW", which shows a similar bump.
You can see from this excerpt that The_Donald is far and away the largest user of "cuck", followed by SubredditDrama, 4chan, CringeAnarchy, politics, TheRedPill and KotakuInAction. Of these, SubredditDrama, politics and EnoughTrumpSpam (not pictured) tend to use the term ironically or to deride those who use it, whereas the others use it as a serious term of abuse (for the most part).
Looking at the graph below in which The_Donald has been excluded and the use of the term has been normalised , you can see the steady spread of the word "cuck" from subreddits associated with the Alt Right into more mainstream subreddits. This doesn't suggest that it has become a popular term of abuse; the story is a little more complicated than that.
If you're wondering why "AskReddit" is so high up in here, it's because (i) it's one of the largest subs and so tends to have a large usage of any word, and (ii) "cuck" is queried for as a string rather than a complete word, which means we pick up "cucks" and "cucked", but also "cuckoo" - it just so happens that a lot of people respond to the question "what's your favourite movie/book?" with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
From whence the cuck?
The_Donald only came about in 2015, and "cuck" was already in frequent use at this point. This left us with the question of where it came from before then. Our initial hypothesis was that it had emerged from /r/coontown, a now-banned expicitly racist subreddit that existed primarily to vent hatred of black people. With that in mind, I pulled every instance of the letter-string "cuck" (including "cuckold" and so on) from coontown. This was the result:
The graph above maps the whole of coontown's lifespan, from its inception in November 2014 to its banning at the beginning of August 2015. The lines tell three different stories:
1. The frequency of the letter-string "cuck" increased fairly rapidly over the course of the subreddit's lifespan. See the graph below:
2. However, this coincided with a very large increase in the number of subscribers to the subreddit, which reached just over 22,000 by the end of July 2015.
3. This led me to create the third line, "Density", which indicates the number of comments containing "cuck" divided by the number of subscribers to the subreddit. This should give some indication of the proportion of posts in which cuck is used**.
The quantitative data create an interesting picture of coontown, showing that the "cuck" string was present from the very beginning. Drilling down into the actual context of its usage, I found that both "cuck" and "cuckold" were used within the sub initially. This suggests that the term was being used both in its racialised context (deriving from cuckold pornography) and also in the sexualised way popularised by GamerGate (see below).
Following my exploration of coontown, I realised that I would need to look further back in order to find where cuck really came from. I pulled every use of the word from 2010, and after spending half an hour or so skimming sexually explicit comments of varying stripes realised that it was at that point really only used regularly in the context of a number of BDSM communities. Deciding instead to work backwards, I pulled every instance of cuck from 2014, and then started at the beginning of the year. Relatively early on, I noticed that the first instances of its use as "cuck" rather than "cuckold" appeared to come from the 4chan and TumblrInAction subreddits. The latter has (I believe) a fairly significant crossover of userbase with the former, which in turn has (as one would guess) a shared userbase with 4chan itself. This leads to the conclusion that "cuck" in its shortened form was popularised on 4chan or a similar imageboard, corroborating the argument made in the Mel Magazine article.
From there, I wanted to see when it became a popular term. As anyone with a superficial knowledge of the GamerGate saga might expect, it exploded in popularity in August 2014, primarily in subreddits like KotakuInAction (ground zero for GamerGate), where it was used as a term of abuse for Eron Gjoni, who had published a 9000-word rant about Zoe Quinn, his game developer ex-girlfriend whom he accused of sleeping with other games journalists.
My suggestion here, then, is that "cuck" was popularised as a misogynistic term, indicating the disempowerment of men who "allow" women to cheat on them without (much) protest. Its popular use as a racialised term within coontown and other racist subreddits and sites appears to postdate its use as a misogynistic slur in GamerGate, as does its use in political contexts.
This is corroborated by the graph below, which shows a normalised view of the appearance of "cuck" over time, such that absolute frequency of use is taken out of the equation and we can see where it is most common in any given month:
Return to The_Donald
The final piece of the cuck puzzle comes from going back where we started, requiring a return trip to The_Donald. Following my adventures in coontown and elsewhere, I pulled every instance of "cuck" from The_Donald and mapped their appearance in the same way as I did for coontown.
This graph, again, has three stories to tell:
1. The frequency of use of "cuck" in The_Donald increased hugely around February of 2016 (when the sub exploded in popularity after Trump won the New Hampshire primary), then again in November 2016 (the election of Trump). Ignore the spike in January 2017; it's caused by a flaw in the data.
2. Again, though, this has been offset by a massive increase in the number of subscribers, which has not tailed off over time (even after the election was over).
3. In order to attempt to compensate for this, I divided the cuck frequency by the number of subscribers in any given month in order to get a crude measure of cuck density (with the same methodological caveats as applied to the same measure in coontown). This showed that even taking into account the increases in numbers of subscribers, "cuck" saw huge spikes in popularity in February and November 2016, and January 2017.
The story, then, is this:
Cuck began its life as cuckold, and when exactly its shortening became de rigeur will likely remain a mystery unless any intrepid data adventurer can scrape the entire log of 4chan from 2013/14 without losing the will to live. Looking at the normalised graph above, you can see that the misogynists of TheRedPill have been using "cuckold" since their subreddit began, and that it appears to have been shortened to "cuck" in 4chan at some point in 2014. The term emerged in the manosphere, and its misogynistic connotations have stuck with it ever since.
It became popular during GamerGate as a kind of misogynistic slur, levelled at one man who appeared to have "allowed" his ex-girlfriend to sleep with other men. From there it quickly morphed into a catch-all term of abuse for men that might otherwise be referred to as "betas" (though that term has another history behind it), with connotations of disempowerment and adherence to feminist or progressive ideals that rendered them traitors to mankind.
At roughly the same time, it became popular in racist circles to refer to white men who allowed themselves to be cuckolded by black men, and it's likely that in these contexts it also became used as means of describing the cuckoldry of the white race more generally construed. This can be seen from one comment, posted in December 2014, to describe the entire nation of Sweden as "cucked":
Good i fucking hate those cuckold Swedes. What happened to them? I think 200 years of peace has shrunk those men's balls. Maybe importing hajiterrorists is a good idea. Might wake up those leftist feminazi loving faggots. Vikings must be puking in Valhalla as we speak
The term went mainstream with the rise of The_Donald, which propelled the alt-right as we know it into significance. The idea that "cuck" primarily means "cuckservative" within T_D and other alt-right havens, then, appears to be mistaken. This is corroborated by the fact that a casual observance of its usage today would suggest that it is used to describe anyone who does not conform to alt-right values, not just conservatives. Cuckservatives constitute a subset of all cucks.
Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as POTUS, the term has become far more popular, but this is not to say that it has retained its original venom in all contexts. In most non-alt-right communities, it is used solely in ironic terms or to deride the people who might use it in a serious fashion. It might have gone mainstream, but it might have become a victim of its own success.
*on the basis that there are ~3 billion comments in the database, and returning all instances of the word cuck would create a spreadsheet of ~300,000 rows, which is unmanageable and not necessarily that helpful on a first pass, given that it would include a lot of comments which nobody sees, rather than only those which have been given some measure of credence.
**It is worth noting that this is not a perfect proxy for the actual density of cucks in coontown; as subreddits become larger they tend to attract a large number of lurkers (subscribers who do not post), but it would be relatively difficult for resource reasons to actually map the number of cuck comments per contributor to the sub. The density measure may not be as useful as I would like.