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What are the Cockles of Your Heart?

Michael Pollick
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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An inspirational story or nostalgic movie is often said to "warm the cockles of your heart," but where exactly are they located? Not surprisingly, the answer will not be a test question on any medical school exam. The "cockles" are more metaphorical than physical, although the phrase can be traced back to 15th century medical beliefs. Unfortunately, the etymological path gets a tad murky after that.

Under one popular theory, the phrase "cockles of your heart" is derived from the Latin description for the heart's chambers, cochleae cordis. It is believed that the word "cockles" is a corrupted version of cochleae, most likely entering the popular vernacular as a form of slang. The prevailing medical opinion of that day and time was that the ventricles of the human heart resembled the concentric shells of small mollusks or snails, also known as cochleae or cockles. This theory concerning the origin of the phrase does address the connection between the physical and emotional role of the heart, but the shell analogy appears to be more accurate with the structure of the human ear. The Latin cochlea is still used to describe the ear, not the cardium, or heart.

Another theory puts the snail before the cart, as it were. During the Middle Ages, there was an abundance of small mollusks and snails whose shells were vaguely heart-shaped. In the old Irish folk song "Molly Malone," a reference is made to these edible mollusks as "cockles and mussels." It is possible that the shape of these cockle shells inspired a comparison to the chambers of the human heart. This theory sounds plausible, but the Latin root for the mollusks and the Latin root for the heart are not similar. If the phrase "cockles of your heart" did come from a comparison to mollusk shells, then it may have been a form of slang all along.

One possibility of the origin of the phrase may be an alternative definition of "cockles." Some say the chambers of a kiln were called cockles, although that usage has apparently fallen out of common use. Under this theory, the cockles of your heart are analogous to the cold chambers of a kiln, which must be warmed to a certain temperature in order to function at its best. It could be argued that a nostalgic movie or other life-affirming experience warms a person in the same sense that a fire warms the "cockles" of a kiln.

There is even a theory that the French word for shell, coquille, is so close in pronunciation and meaning to "cockle" that a comparison to the shell-like chambers of the human heart was inevitable. Using foreign words in casual conversation is an age-old practice in any language, and it is possible that the phrase "cockles of your heart" may have evolved from the more affected "coquilles of your heart."

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to LanguageHumanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon995145 — On Apr 06, 2016

Certain types of mussels and clams, when you open them up and spread their shells flat, the resulting shape is somewhat heart like -- as in the queen of hearts playing card, not the actual heart.

Sometimes things have multiple layers of meaning, which adds to their fun. Consider the structure of puns.

People have always enjoyed word play and are quite inventive. Whimsy is a substantial part of human nature. Consider the phrase, "it's raining cats and dogs". I have heard multiple explanations for it's origin but I think the one that fits best is that it derives from the Latin "Cata Doxus", meaning contrary to dogma, i.e., expectations.

Now my question is, where does the stylized heart shape come from? Since it looks nothing at all like a real heart.

By anon320783 — On Feb 19, 2013

A kochelofen is a woodburning heater covered in tiles called kochel (cockle). Many of these heaters had benches to sit near the warmth or nooks built into them to put teapots or blankets to warm them. Warming the tiles of my heart?

By anon309112 — On Dec 14, 2012

Very interesting and amusing as well. I used the phrase "warm the cockles of my heart" and went to translate it in Italian so that some friends would understand, and lo and behold the translation was: "to warm the clams of my heart" or "riscaldare le vongole del mio cuore." I was laughing.

By anon145817 — On Jan 24, 2011

Thank you for this entertaining exposition, and the quote attributed to Churchill in the comments!

By anon76165 — On Apr 09, 2010

You do recall Churchill used the phrase after the sinking of the Graf Spee?

By Diwiyana — On Jun 07, 2009

According to Webster's New World Dictionary (David Guralnik, ed.), your first and last definitions are related. The modern cockle comes from Middle English cokel from Old French coquille, "blister, shell, cockle," which this source suggests was altered to more resemble the unrelated word "cock" meaning rooster (naughty, naughty, you thought something else, didn't you?). It also mentions the plural for the chambers of the heart deriving from (probably) Latin coclea, "winding cavity, snail" which resulted in our cochlea. Of course, in the old days, nobody actually looked at the hearts of people all that closely. Not till the Renaissance.

By anon33444 — On Jun 06, 2009

Haven't heard that expression for a long time, I'm in my 60's now but do remember it being used. It is great to know where it came from.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

As a frequent contributor to LanguageHumanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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