Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Kicks for Kooks

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2016

Keck Observatory

One of the things I didn’t mention in my review of John McWhorter’s Words on the Move was his use of minimal pairs to explore the vowels of English. A minimal pair is a pair of words or phrases that are identical in every aspect but one, chosen so as to illustrate how this one aspect results in a difference in meaning or grammaticality. For example, most English speakers find the sentence What and where will I sleep? ungrammatical, but if we change just one word, by replacing the verb sleep with the verb teach, the sentence improves for many speakers: What and where will I teach? This fact can then be used as evidence for your analysis of the syntax of wh-questions, or the semantics of verbs, or maybe other theoretical questions. In phonology, minimal pairs target not words, but speech sounds. So for example, we know that the vowels /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are two different vowels in English, as opposed to variant pronunciations of the same vowel, because words such as putt [pʌt] and put [pʊt] mean different things. (If this seems obvious to you, consider that /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ really were variants of a single vowel at one time, when blood rhymed with could.)

McWhorter tried to do this with all the English vowels at once, assembling what I guess you could call a minimal series of words, all of the form /bVt/, where V stands for any vowel. Here’s the series he used:

  1. /i/ beet
  2. /ɪ/ bit
  3. /e/ bait
  4. /ɛ/ bet
  5. /æ/ bat
  6. /u/ boot
  7. /ʊ/ book
  8. /o/ boat
  9. /ɔ/ bought
  10. /ɑ/ baht
  11. /ʌ/ but

His series isn’t perfect; notice that book breaks the pattern. As McWhorter explains, “There is, in general, no series of words that all begins with the same consonant and end with some same other one that includes every single one of the possible vowels in between.” This may also explain why for the last item in the list, McWhorter chose the marginally English word baht, the name of the Thai unit of currency. If he hadn’t, he would have had to choose the English bot, which refers to either an internet app for repetitive tasks or a botfly larva, and maybe he thought these concepts were more likely to require explanation than Thai money. Of course, if you’re among the many speakers who have the cot/caught merger, bought, bot, and baht all sound the same anyway.

So as you can see, trying to find these minimal series provides plenty of excitement, thrills, and surprises. One series that I’ve thought about now and again is the one consisting of monosyllables beginning and ending with /k/. I guess it started when I was a kid, and first heard the insult kook /kuk/. I found it fascinating that in writing, this word was distinguished from the word cook /kʊk/ not by changing the double-O in the middle, but by replacing the C with a K! In writing this post, I’ve also discovered that in addition to referring to a crazy person, kook is also a term for a clueless surfer wannabe.

As a teenager, I learned the verb cack (out) /kæk/ from this George Carlin bit on death (starting at 7:43)–

–but I’ve never actually heard anyone else use this expression, and I haven’t found it in dictionary searches. That’s OK though, because cack can also mean “a baby’s heelless shoe with a soft leather sole,” as well as “shit”.

Years later, as a homeowner, I noticed that the plumbers and handymen we’ve dealt with prefer to talk about sealing countertops and windows with caulking instead of just plain caulk. Knowing about the cot/caught merger mentioned above, I suspect that they’re trying to avoid the potentially embarrassing ambiguity of a cock/caulk merger, whether because they’ve merged those vowels or their customers may have. In any case, for speakers who maintain a distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, cock /kɑk/ and caulk /kɔk/ belong in the series.

Filling in the rest of the series, some easy ones are kick /kɪk/, cake /kek/, and coke /kok/, but after those, the going gets tougher. Even so, in the past few years I’ve been pleased to see the rest of the series emerging. I learned about the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. And it turns out that keek is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, meaning to “peep or look furtively”. Apparently, it’s also the name of a Vine-like social medium that I never heard about until I looked it up while writing this post.

Only one last, holdout vowel kept my “K” minimal series incomplete: the mid-central vowel /ʌ/. So close, but alas, cuck is not an English word. Or … is it?

  1. /i/ keek
  2. /ɪ/ kick
  3. /e/ cake
  4. /ɛ/ Keck
  5. /æ/ cack
  6. /u/ kook
  7. /ʊ/ cook
  8. /o/ coke
  9. /ɔ/ caulk
  10. /ɑ/ cock
  11. /ʌ/ cuck

It is! Thanks to the recent surging popularity of speech attacking feminism and the politically correct people who believe in it, I’ve learned that cuck is indeed an English word, and has been since at least 2007. It’s a clipping of cuckold, an archaic-sounding but still-current term for a man whose wife has extramarital sex. Cuckold is etymologically related to cuckoo, the connection being that just as cuckoos force their unwitting victims to provide for the cuckoo’s offspring, so a “cuckoo’d” man might end up caring for another man’s child. In an interesting connection to another item in the series, kook might also derive from cuckoo by clipping. But shortening cuckold to cuck isn’t the end of the story. The new development for 2016 is summed up in this article from GQ:

The word gained political potency during the 2016 election in the portmanteau “cuckservative” (cuck + conservative) used to imply that the mainstream conservatives of the Jeb Bush variety are weak and effeminate. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is not a cuckservative. He says what he wants and doesn’t care if it’s offensive. In reference to Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever,” radio host Rush Limbaugh snarked, “If Trump were your average, ordinary, cuckolded Republican, he would have apologized by now.”

But Donald Trump doesn’t apologize. He went on to win the Republican presidential nomination as Jeb Bush, the one-time favorite, was irrevocably set back by a simple insult from Trump delivered with an invisible wink: “low-energy.”

Since The Donald bested the field of cuckservatives with his manly virility and full head of hair, those who couldn’t see a good insult go to waste have continued to use it in its shortened form–cuck–which applies first to anyone supporting Hillary, but also anyone who would challenge Donald Trump on his spelling, his logic, or his facts.

Read the rest of the GQ article for some other interesting history and analysis. But just to recap the word’s morphological history, cuckold gave us cuck via clipping, which gave us cuckservative via blending, which has now given us cuck once again, via another clipping. Lovely! Inflammatory and hateful language has completed our /kVk/ minimal series.

12 Responses to “Kicks for Kooks”

  1. Herb Stahlks said

    I’ve used hVd as frame in my classes. You have to cross morpheme boundaries for it to work, but they’re fairly natural.


    The last one breaks the pattern by having two syllables and requiring explanation for some students.

    • Neal said

      Nice, and you even got the diphthongs! I guess I could have gotten one of the diphthongs by dipping again into the well of bigotry for “kike”, but as far as I know, “cowk” and “koyk” are still not words.

      Thanks for prompting me to find out what “hoyden” means.

      • Herb Stahlke said

        I actually left two of my diphthongs out. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in my rural, pre-NCVS, Inland Northern speech from south of Detroit, Canadian Raising has become contrastive in open syllables and before final /d/ and /nd/. So in addition to “hide” (v.) /h@Id/ I have “hide” (n.) /hVId. I have lots of pairs of that, including for /@U/ vs. /VU/, as in “round” (prep.) /r@Und/ vs. “round” (adj/) /rVUnd/, and /Vr/ vs. /ar/ as in ‘part” /pVrt/ vs. “par”./par/. The /r/ pair, however, is allophonic between closed and open syllables, since I also have “card” /c@rd/ vs. “car” /car/.

  2. John said


    I don’t know if John McWhorter is British or American (or other), but “baht” is a perfectly respectable Yorkshire dialect word meaning “without”, as in the song “On Ilkley moor baht ‘at”, ‘at being hat.

    I’ve done plenty caulking in my time, but have never heard or used it in conversation, and don’t know how it’s pronounced. Would “cork” not do the job, and be less obscure? Or, do you see them as pronounced differently?

    Herb, if it helps you, there is a northern English dialect word “hoy”, meaning to throw, so “hoyed” is its past tense, but pronounced as a single syllable.

    Come to think of it, a hoy is a kind of inshore boat.

    John Duffy

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the BrE contributions. McWhorter is American, FYI. I thought about the word “cork,” but since I speak a rhotic dialect, it didn’t satisfy me personally. However, you’ve raised an issue I didn’t touch on. For me, even when I pronounce “cork” without an /r/, it doesn’t sound the same as my pronunciation of “caulk”. So I wonder: What vowel am I *really* using there? I suspect I may be using the low back unround [ɒ], the sound (I am told) of many BrE pronunciations of “rock” and “father.”

      • Kevin Flynn said

        Hmm. I don’t know of any variety of BrE in which “rock” and “father” share a vowel. (They are ptonounced /rɒk/ and /’fɑːðə/ in the standard dialect of BrE.)

  3. Ben Zimmer said

    The same type of folks who use the word cuck also provide an alternative for /kɛk/: Kek, a rather bizarre alt-right meme. See e.g. this Vox explainer: “It’s complicated, but basically, through a series of meme-heavy coincidences involving 4chan’s use of ‘kek’ as a synonym for ‘lol,’ 4chan users profess to believe that Pepe (yes, the cartoon frog) is a reincarnation of Kek, an Egyptian frog-god who ruled over chaos and darkness, and that his coming is a sign that Donald Trump will save them all.”

    • Neal said

      I’d forgotten about that! I heard about it in an episode of the “Reply All” podcast, probably the one that traced the history of Pepe the Frog, but it didn’t click for me that “Kek” was a member of the club–maybe because I wasn’t actively looking for it because I already had “Keck”.

  4. Kevin Flynn said

    Just in case it’s of interest, here’s a “McWhorter’s list” for standard BrE. (Note that we normally add a length marker (:) to nos 1, 6, 9, and 10, and that nos 3 and 8 are treated as diphthongs.)

    1. /iː/ beet
    2. /ɪ/ bit
    3. /eɪ/ bait
    4. /ɛ/ bet
    5. /æ/ bat
    6. /u:/ boot
    7. /ʊ/ book
    8. /əʊ/ boat
    9. /ɔ:/ bought
    10. /ɑ:/ baht
    11. /ʌ/ but

    In BrE we also have:

    /ɒ/ as in bot
    /ə/ as in unstressed but

    and, as further diphthongs:

    /aʊ/ as in bout
    /ɔɪ/ coin (can’t make that one fit into this minimal-pair series!)

    There are, of course, also those diphthongs ending in -ə, which occur only in non-rhotic dialects:

    /eə/ as in hair
    /ʊə/ as in tour
    /ɪə/ as in hear

    • Neal said

      “McWhorter(‘s) list” … nice. It might not become as famous as a Swadesh list, but … (That’s all I have. I don’t know how to finish this sentence.) Also, the vowels in bait and boat are (usually) diphthongs in AmE, too, but they’re not phonemically diphthongs. So if you monophthongize boat, you’ll sound like a speaker from Minnesota, but still be understood. OTOH, if you monophthongize bout, a speaker who doesn’t share your dialect might hear bat, and if you monophthongize coin, it’ll sound like you’re saying corn with a non-rhotic pronunciation.

      As for those other diphthongs (the “falling” diphthongs), non-rhotic dialects do have them before /l/, where they’re perceived phonemically as monophthongs, as in nail, Neal, and Nile.

  5. steveko said

    Interesting! FWIW (not much at all), but “cack” was a common word for me growing up in Australia. Short for “cackle”, it meant something like “a funny moment” – “what a cack!” (Oh, Wiktionary even has this, as a verb: )

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