The Grammarphobia Blog

A mollusk proposition

Q: Where does the phrase “warm the cockles of my heart” come from and what does it really mean?

A: You’ve heard of cockleshells? Well, cockles, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are bivalve mollusks “common on sandy coasts, and much used for food.” This creature has been known as a “cockle” since the late 1390s.

Some etymologists think the 17th-century phrase “cockles of one’s heart” may come from the heart’s resemblance to a cockleshell.

Others think it may have something to do with the Greek-derived zoological name for the cockle, Cardium (“of the heart”).

And still others, as the OED says, have sought its origin in the Latin corculum, a diminutive of cor, or “heart.”

Whatever the origin, hearts have had cockles ever since. Here are some of the OED citations:

1671, in the writings of John Eachard: “This contrivance of his did inwardly rejoice the cockles of his heart.”

1739, in Roger Bull’s translation of Dedekindus’ Grobianus: “O! how you’d please the Cockles of my Heart.”

1792, in a letter of Sir Walter Scott: “An expedition … which would have delighted the very cockles of your heart.”

1858, from a letter of Charles Darwin: “I have just had the innermost cockles of my heart rejoiced by a letter from Lyell.”

The modern expression, as the OED points out, is “to warm the cockles of one’s heart.” It means to raise one’s spirits or give one pleasure.

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