• cockle •
Pronunciation: kah-kêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A hairy plant (Lychnis Githago) with a purplish flower commonly found along roadsides and in grain fields, also known as the corn cockle. It is unrelated to the cockle burr (family Asteraceae), which led to the invention of Velcro. 2. A heart-shaped ribbed bivalve including the scallop and similar clams with ribbed shells. 3. A wrinkle or pucker in a piece of cloth or, as a verb, "to make wrinkle or pucker."
Notes: The fishwife Molly Malone, in the Irish folksong of that name, wheeled her pushcart up and down the streets of Dublin singing, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!" Clearly Molly understood the importance of seafood being fresh. It is difficult to tell which type of cockles are intended in the nursery rhyme:
Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
Are we talking about flowers shaped like cockle shells or actual shells used for garden decoration?
In Play: Perhaps the loveliest use of today's word is in the phrase, "to warm the cockles of (your) heart." No one knows where it comes from: the fact that cockles are cold? The fact that they are heart-shaped? From the Medieval Latin phrase cochleae cordis "ventricles of the heart"? Charles Darwin wrote in a letter in 1858, "I have just had the innermost cockles of my heart rejoiced by a letter from Lyell." We worry that the third meaning of today's word may fall by the wayside: "The borborygms emanating from Gladwyn's paunch after dinner cockled the brows of the other dinner guests."
Word History: If you think the two meanings of today's Good Word are suspiciously unrelated, you're right. The name of the shellfish comes from Old French coquille "scallop, shell" (as in coquilles Saint-Jacques) from Latin conchylium "shellfish" borrowed from Greek konkhylion, the diminutive of konkhe "cockle, mussel". The Latin equivalent of konkhe was concha "mussel, shellfish", the origin of English conch. The name of the flower, however, came from Medieval Latin cocculus "little berry", the diminutive of Latin coccus "berry", borrowed from Greek kokkos with the same meaning. (Nothing could have warmed the cockles of our hearts more than Billie Brightwell's and Lynn Laboriel's independent suggestions that we run today's Good Word in our series.)