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Q From Richard Buttrey, UK: Have you any idea where mollycoddling originated?

A Let’s take it in its two parts. The second comes from the verb to coddle, meaning to treat somebody in an overprotective way, as though he or she were an invalid. The verb in this sense is not recorded before the early part of the nineteenth century — its first appearance is in Jane Austen’s Emma: “Be satisfied with doctoring and coddling yourself”. It looks very much as though it comes from an older sense of the verb meaning to boil gently, to parboil. That sense is linked to caudle, an old word for a warm drink of thin gruel mixed with sweetened and spiced wine or ale, which was given chiefly to sick people. Hence, by association of ideas, coddle took on its modern sense.

The first bit is on the face of it easy enough, since it is from the pet form of the given name Mary (as in Sweet Molly Malone of Dublin’s fair city). But Molly has also had a long history in several different but related senses associated with low living. (The name was popularised by Middleton and Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl of 1611, which featured a criminal called Moll Cut-purse.) As either molly or moll, from the early seventeenth century on it was often used to describe a prostitute, hence, much later, the American gangster’s moll. As molly it was also a common eighteenth-century name for a homosexual man, often in the form Miss Molly, and a molly house was a male brothel (as in Mark Ravenhill’s new play at the National Theatre in London, Mother Clap’s Molly House).

It’s sometimes said that the molly in mollycoddle comes from the sense of a prostitute, but the usage evidence shows that it was really linked to the gay associations. As a noun, it was used particularly of a man who had been over-protected in childhood and so considered to have been made into a milksop or effeminate. For example, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote in Pendennis in 1849: “You have been bred up as a molly-coddle, Pen, and spoilt by the women”. The verb came along later in the nineteenth century and was used more like the way we do now.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 29 Sep. 2001

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 29 September 2001.