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Cockles of your heart

Q From Craig Bodhi: I’m curious about the idiom warm the cockles of your heart.

A It’s one of the more lovely idioms in the language, isn’t it? Something that warms the cockles of one’s heart induces a glow of pleasure, sympathy, affection, or some such similar emotion. What gets warmed is the innermost part of one’s being. It’s not that surprising that it should be associated with the heart, that being the presumed seat of the emotions for most people. But what are the cockles?

We’re not sure. We do know that the expression turns up first in the middle of the seventeenth century, and that the earliest form of the idiom was rejoice the cockles of one’s heart.

Cockles are a type of bivalve mollusc, once a staple part of the diet for many British people (you may recall that Sweet Molly Malone once wheeled her wheelbarrow through Dublin’s fair city, crying “cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!”). They are frequently heart-shaped (their formal zoological genus was at one time Cardium, of the heart), with ribbed shells.

It may be that the shape and spiral ribbing of the ventricles of the heart reminded surgeons of the two valves of the cockle. But I can’t find an example of the word cockle being applied to the heart outside this expression, which makes me suspicious of this explanation. It may be that the shape of the cockleshell, suggesting the heart as it so obviously does, gave rise to cockles of the heart as an expansion.

After this piece appeared in the Newsletter, James Woodfield pointed out that there is another possible explanation. In medieval Latin, the ventricles of the heart were at times called cochleae cordis, where the second word is an inflected form of cor, heart. Those unversed in Latin could have misinterpreted cochleae as cockles, or it might have started out as a university in-joke. Oddly, cochlea in Latin is the word for a snail (from the shape of the ventricles — it’s also the name given to the spiral cavity of the inner ear), so if this story is right we should really be speaking of warming the snails of one’s heart.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 August 2002.