Sunday, 3 August 2014

Cuckoo - Mad, Bad & Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land

Three cuckoos perched on a branch
The Common Cuckoo
(from Natural History of the Birds of Central Europe, 1905)


Noun, interjection & verb. Middle English.
[Old French cucu (modern coucouc) of imitative origin.]

A1(a) noun. A migratory Eurasion grey or brown speckled bird, Cuculus canorus,
which leaves its eggs in the nests of other birds and has a distinctive cry,
the first hearing of which is regarded as a harbinger of spring. ME

A1(b) noun. Any bird of the cosmopolitan family Cuculidae,
including cuckoos, the roadrunner, and the anis. L18

A2 noun. Also interjection. (Representative of) the call of the cuckoo; an imitation of this. ME

A3 noun. A person who behaves like a cuckoo;
specifically (slang) a silly person. L16

B1 adj. Of or pertaining to the cuckoo;
resembling the cuckoo and its uniformly repeated call. Usually attributive. E17

B2 adj. Crazy, foolish. slang. E20

C1 verb intrans. Utter the call of the cuckoo. E17

C2 verb trans. Repeat incessantly and without variation. M17

As much as I like birds, I have to say that I don't really like cuckoos. Whenever I see one, I can't help but try and give it the eye, the eye that says: "I know your sort, flyboy. I know what you've done and what you're capable of." The cuckoos are never particularly perturbed by my eye, but someone's gotta stand up to these little wannabe passerines. Someone has to take a stand.

Yeah I know; it's silly to anthropomorphise a creature that's just acting on instinct. But their entire life cycle ... it's all just a bit ... well ... evil. In case you're unaware of the cuckoo's skulduggery, when a cuckoo hen is ready to lay an egg, does she build a nest like any other self-respecting bird? Oh no. What she does is find another bird's nest, flips out one of its eggs, and replaces it with her own. Shocking, eh?

But it gets worse. Having been nurtured and cared for by its unsuspecting adoptive parent, the newly-hatched changeling cuckoo embarks on an ovicidal frenzy, rolling all the other unhatched eggs out of the nest as well. And if it didn't hatch first, and there are already other hatched chicks present, the cuckoo chick will pitch them too, not even batting an eyelid (yes, birds have eyelids - I checked) as the hapless hatchlings plummets to their death.

So, you see, I don't like cuckoos much. While I'm not one for sweeping generalisations, I make an exception with the cuckoo, unashamedly stating that it's lazy (not building its own nest), cunning (tossing out one egg before leaving its own so the books add up) and thieving (stealing food that rightfully belongs to the host's own chicks). Oh, and that's not even mentioning its ovicidal, avicidal, fratricidal, nest-nabbing, back-stabbing, chick-chucking, parent-pilfering psychopathic shenanigans. I don't like cuckoos.

To make it worse, the word cuckoo has parasitically established itself in the English language just like its winged Judas of a namesake. And do we use cuckoo to mean thieving? Murderous? Traitorous? No. It means mad, loopy, a bit nuts, which is akin to the craven cuckoo being acquitted of all its crime by means of an insanity plea. This is an outrage.

How the cuckoo came to mean 'mad' is something of a mystery. Etymology Online postulates that it may be because of the cuckoo's repetitive, unchanging call. And it's funny, but when you sit and listen to the cuckoo's call, it does have a slightly unhinged aspect to it, bringing to mind the famous definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As for why we say someone is in cloud cuckoo land, this is refreshingly unambiguous - it's a translation of the Greek Nephelokokkugia, which you'll remember is the name of the city in Aristophanes' whimsical play Birds. You know the one, right? It's the one where Tereus helps Pisthetairos and Euelpides build a utopian city in the clouds with the help of the birds, and ... umm ... oh who am I kidding? I've never read this play. But it's the origin of the expression, so you're satisfied, right? Good. Now have a listen to the cuckoo's maddening, unwavering call; look into its dead, psychopathic eyes and tell me you're not as enraged as I am. How can they just keep getting away with this? How? What kind of world do we live in, I ask you?

Do you like cuckoos?

Are you a bit cuckoo, or otherwise a resident of cloud cuckoo land?

Have you read, studied or otherwise familarised yourself with Aristophanes' Birds?
(yeah right)

Do please leave your most maddening comments in the cuckoo box below.


  1. How can they?, indeed.
    We have the same problem with a cousin... we call him psychopath and I really don't want dear aunties slipping into the "he's cuckoo" theory as it will remove him from owned responsibility. Anyway. Where were we? I can't stand the evil bird either. I find cuckoos scary even in the maddeningly punctual Swiss Clocks ;)... its painted eyes have that Jack Nicholson's when on a roll mad looking...

    1. Oh dear ... a cuckoo cousin. And you're right about the eyes, Teresa! Most disturbing.

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