In Spanish people say poner los cuernos (=to put horns) to define a situation in which somebody is cheating to theirN partner:

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—¡Juan le ha puesto los cuernos a su novia! El otro día pasó la noche con una amiga.

—Juan y Antonia se separaron después de que se pusieran los cuernos mutuamente unas cuantas veces

That is, when somebody has had a relationship with another person (specially having sex) without his/her partner knowing, this expression is used.

Also, the DLE contains the meaning 'cheating' for cuernos:

  1. m. coloq. Infidelidad matrimonial. Marriage infidelity

I tried to find an explanation to this and found a site which details different hypothesis:

  • mythological references to the god Mercury,
  • Christian explanations on how this involves devil, who does have horns

but nothing seems to be definitive.

This concept seems to be quite widespread in Spanish culture, where a person to whom le han puesto los cuernos is a cornudo, for example.

Do you have proper references on the origin of this saying?

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    A nice question, but I'm not sure it's really specific to Spanish. The answer is here in any case: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuckold#Metaphor_and_symbolism – Noldorin Sep 5 '16 at 13:43
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    I think that to find the origin of "poner cuernos" first we need to find the origin of "cornudo" but a google search of "cornudo" returns an overdose of porn, so I'm not willing to do the research work required ;-) – DGaleano Sep 5 '16 at 15:35
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    Here is a fine, if very scholarly, explanation of the origins of the term. As can be seen, this expression is not exclusive to Spanish language and has been used also in English, by Shakespeare no less. I don't know if that would render it off-topic, though. – JMVanPelt Sep 6 '16 at 18:22
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    @JMVanPelt good descovery! I did not know it is used in different languages, hence it is a cultural thing not limited to Spanish. So I am going to close as off-topic for the reason of being Questions of culture that don't directly relate to the Spanish language (from What topics can I ask about here - and what shouldn't). Before that, feel free to add the relevant parts of the link as an answer if you feel like, of course. I will close it at night so there is time enough for it. Thanks. – fedorqui Sep 7 '16 at 9:55
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    I really think that poner los cuernos is a Spanish expression (see cuerno, 9th meaning) and so we can ask questions about it, for the same reason we can ask questions about any other Spanish expression even if its origins are lost in time (we have reached the proto-indo-european in some cases), so I'm voting to reopen the question. – Charlie Sep 8 '16 at 11:07
up vote 8 down vote accepted

To wear horns is an expression belonging to Western culture and is not exclusive to the Spanish language, as it is used at least in Spanish (Poner cuernos), French (Mettre des cornes), and Italian (Avere le corna). Its origin is apparently Greek and Latin — According to Richard Broxton Onians' The Origins of European Thought, horns had an important sexual significance in Antiquity, and the earliest reference to the association between horns and adultery is to be found in an epigram from the Anthologia Palatina (Anth. Pal. XI, 5) titled "Kerophoros" ("horn-wearer"), which says that "the husband who has many a Paris in his house" has horns.

This expression was widely used in the English language too, and The Oxford Handbook of the Age of Shakespeare cites Samuel Johnson as saying of Shakespeare that "there is no image which our author appears so fond of as that of a cuckold's horns."

An interesting source with plenty of footnotes and information is John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities, which devotes an entire section to "the Saying that the Husbands of False Women Wear Horns or are Cornutes."

  • Speaking of Shakespeare; "The cuckoo then, on every tree, Mocks married men; and thus sings he, Cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo!—O word of fear, Unpleasing to a married ear!" – enxaneta 2 days ago

The definite answer is: we really don't know.

What we know is that the expression is very old (at least c. XIII) and is also known in Italy and France.

Already in "Del origen y principio de la lengua castellana" (1674) the origin of the word was object of speculation.

Some tentative (mostly dubious) explanations here.

I found several answers. None of them in english. Maybe somebody would like to translate this by editing the post.

"Algunas fuentes nos indican que al parecer el origen de la expresión “poner los cuernos” se lo debemos a los vikingos, pues los jefes de las aldeas o poblados tenían una especie de “derecho de pernada” sobre las mujeres de su territorio, es decir, podían mantener relaciones con cualquiera de las allí presentes sin ningún tipo de compromiso.

Cuando esto ocurría el jefe colocaba en la puerta de la casa su casco, adornado por los dos cuernos típicos, de manera que nadie se atreviese a importunar.

Esto dio origen a la expresión que hoy tratamos para referirnos a algún tipo de infidelidad, pues estas mujeres solían estar casadas o eran pretendidas por algún muchacho de la misma tribu, que sentirían como una infidelidad la desgracia de que el jefe del clan se fijase en su amada.

Otras fuentes cuentan la misma historia, pero con los nobles británicos como protagonistas y una cornamenta de ciervo en las puertas de las casas.

Algunas nos llevan hasta España o México, donde se utiliza la palabra “buey” como sinónimo de tonto, persona ridícula o poco viril; por lo que al ser víctima de una infidelidad (generalmente el hombre) acumulaba todos estos calificativos en estos atributos que imaginariamente adornaban su cabeza para convertirlo en ese buey al que antes nos referíamos.

Y finalmente al relato del ”Libro del Buen Amor” del Arcipreste de Hita, en que narra la historia de un pintor que marcha durante dos años de viaje y antes de partir le pinta un cordero a su esposa bajo el ombligo. Como la esposa no le es fiel, el cordero se le borra, por lo que pide a su amante (otro pintor) que le dibuje un cordero... dando como resultado el dibujo de un carnero por parte del amante.

Al regresar el marido le pregunta a la esposa que cómo es posible que el cordero que dibujó hace dos años, se convirtiese en un cordero, obteniendo la respuesta por parte de la esposa de que era lo normal, pues en tan largo tiempo el cordero crece y se convierte en un estupendo carnero; y de aquí la expresión “poner los cuernos”

Taken from this article:

http://www.aulafacil.com/articulos/sabias/t2475/el-origen-de-la-expresion-poner-los-cuernos

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    The Viking theory is rather implausible, as Vikings did not actually wear horned helmets. The Mexican one does not hold very well as it appears the expression antedates even the Spanish conquest. I am tempted to say that the one from the Libro de Buen Amor is an ellaboration on the expression rather than its origin. – JMVanPelt Sep 6 '16 at 18:25
  • Yep. You are right. That's what people think about it, really. – darkgaze Sep 7 '16 at 8:05

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