The Poltroon Husband.

The fiction in last week’s New Yorker is “The Poltroon Husband,” by Joseph O’Neill. I wasn’t crazy about the story — the narrative voice is annoying (deliberately so, of course, but still annoying) — but I was delighted with the following bits:

I looked up “abode.” It refers to a habitual residence, of course, but it derives from an Old English verb meaning “to wait.” The expression “abide with me” can be traced back to the same source.
A “poltroon,” I read, is an “utter coward,” which I knew; I didn’t know that the word probably descends from the Old Italian poltrire, to laze around in bed, from poltro, bed. Interesting, I guess.

Not only is all that information absolutely correct, but the “probably” warmed the cockles of my heart. Etymology is a specialty, and you can look up the results as decided by specialists rather than guessing or picking up some glittering falsehood on the internet, and not all the results are certain! Joseph O’Neill gets the LH Good Linguistics in Fiction Award for the week (and probably, given the level of competition, for the year).


  1. “warmed the cockles of my heart”
    I used that expression (sarcastically) in conversation in my office and one of my younger colleagues clearly couldn’t decide whether she should be shocked.

  2. Sigh. I just hope that fine old expression doesn’t get skunked (as Bryan Garner would say).

  3. There is a joke in VIctor/Victoria (1982) that only works because “cockles” has no generally known meaning outside that expression, but nevertheless sounds like it could be something dirty.

  4. When I Were A Lad, there was a guy who used to visit various pubs late on Friday and Saturday night selling steamed whelks, cockles and other delicacies. The cockles came in their shells and he would provide you with a pin to pry them out. His business model, as we would say now, depended on the fact that it was late and people had been drinking beer all evening, so the idea of eating unidentifiable morsels of alleged seafood from the end of pin seemed entirely reasonable.

  5. In Dublin’s fair city,
    Where the girls are so pretty,
    I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
    As she wheeled her barrow,
    Through the streets broad and narrow,
    Crying cockles and mussels,
    Alive alive o!

    This cockle is < French coquille. But in cockles of * heart it may be instead a corruption of cochleae ‘ventricles’.

  6. Stu Clayton says

    What is the connection between the heart ventricles and the inner ear ??

  7. Cochlea is Latin for snail shell, sez the internet, so the anatomical parts were named for their shape.

  8. ‘Cockles’ at Wiki has a photo of a bivalve. A pin would be useful to winkle winkles from their cochlea-shaped shells.

  9. How did the heart’s ventricles get described as snails? They don’t look much like. “Little bellies” makes more sense!

  10. >cockles has no generally known meaning …

    Oh, quite contrary, I say. I’m sure there are children who didn’t learn of silver bells and cockle shells. But not many, particularly those who were of age and class to see Victor Victoria.

  11. NED v2 p574 “cockle sb2”

    5. Cockles of the heart ; used in connexion with to rejoice, delight, etc. ; also (in modern use) to warm the cockles of one’s heart.

    For derivation cf. quot. 1669. Others have sought its origin in L. corculum dim. of Cor heart. (Latham conjectured ‘the most probable explanation lies (a in the likeness of a heart to a cockleshell ; the base of the former being compared to the hinge of the latter ; (b in the zoological name for the cockle being Cardium, from the Greek cardia = heart ‘.)

    [1669 R. Lower Tract. de Corde 25 Fibrae quidem…spirali suo ambitu helicem sive cochleam satis apte referunt.]

  12. The Stephen King novel “IT” opens with a rather good piece of linguistics; one of the characters is asking himself “is Derry [the town in which the book is set] haunted?” and then considers the different definitions of “haunt”, from “inhabited by a ghost” to “a place visited frequently” and finishing with “a feeding place for animals”.

  13. But in cockles of * heart it may be instead a corruption of cochleae ‘ventricles’.

    But why would the ventricles of the heart be called “cochleae cordum” rather than just their customary Latin name, “ventriculi cordum”, from which the English word is derived? Is there any evidence of the ventricles ever being called “cochleae”, other than in sources claiming this as the origin of the phrase “cockles of your heart”? Anyone got a copy of Vesalius to hand?

    If anything, I’d imagine, the bit of the heart referred to would be the bicuspid valve (mitral valve) which has two flaps and might look a bit like a bivalve shell.

  14. @Ryan: Nursery rhymes are full of nonsense words, nonsense phrases, and nonsensical situations (in this case, growing pretty maids in the garden). So it was very easy, for me at least, to know multiple rhymes that mentioned “cockle shells” without knowing, or even being inclined to wonder, what, if anything, they were.

  15. A cockle is not a scallop but rather a heart shaped bivalve in the Cardiidae family. Cardium edilus, the one that is eaten in coastal Europe, was designated by Linneaus in 1758. The shells are sold, whole or crushed, to line paths. There is also a Neolithic Cardium pottery named after the cockle shell imprint.

    Scallops are Pectinidae, perhaps the coquilles St. Jacques name was derived from cockle.

  16. Cockleshells were the most numerous kind on the beaches of my boyhood, and that’s how we referred to them. But simple “shell” would bring them to mind too: they’re the prototypical shell for me even today.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Coquille just means “shell” of eggs or mollusks (but not apparently turtles).



  18. Oh, quite contrary, I say. I’m sure there are children who didn’t learn of silver bells and cockle shells. But not many, particularly those who were of age and class to see Victor Victoria.

    As Brett says, that’s neither here nor there — ask those kids what “cockle” means and you’ll get blank looks. It might as well be urim and thummim.

  19. ask those kids what “cockle” means and you’ll get blank looks.

    You’re being very confident here in your assertions. Why?

    Cockle shells are not a tremendously obscure object, for anyone who grew up either

    a) hearing about silver bells and cockle shells – and it’s worth noting that in books of nursery rhymes there are generally pictures, which make it quite clear what a cockle shell is

    b) hearing about Molly Malone, and from context it’s pretty obvious what a cockle is there


    c) near a beach anywhere in temperate waters, where you’ll find plenty of cockle shells (and indeed mussel shells).

    They even make the news every now and again, mostly in tragic circumstances like this

    You’ll notice that in reports at the time, the BBC (for example) felt no need to explain to its readers what cockles were.

  20. You’re being very confident here in your assertions. Why?

    Well, I’ll restrict my assertion to the US; for all I know, UK kids know all about them. But I stand by my assertion with that restriction.

  21. ə de vivre says

    I share Hat’s intuition that most youngish NA English speaks wouldn’t know what a cockle is. Are there any NA English speakers who grew up with “cockle” in their active sea-life vocabulary? I grew up with oysters, geoducks, and limpets (and scallops, clams, and mussels from their cooked versions)—but my family was well off enough to be able to afford things like shellfish for diner and camping trips on the coast.

  22. Michael Eochaidh says

    A little googling suggests that most cockles in the US come from New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UK. Growing up as a suburbanite in the midwestern US, I don’t think I’d ever heard the word except in the phrase “cockles of my heart.”

    I should check and see if they have them in the British section of my local grocery store.

  23. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Perhaps unsurprisingly since it must be bought alive, shellfish still seems to be rather local. My understanding is that cockles are common in Britain, as they certainly are in Spain. Conversely, New England clams are at least very rare — or in my own experience, completely absent — in Europe. I don’t recall ever eating geoducks in Boston either, and I’d expect the share of Britons who know what a geoduck is (or how the word geoduck is pronounced) to be rather low.

  24. or how the word geoduck is pronounced

    As I called it here, “one of the weirdest [spelling/pronunciation matches] in the language.”

  25. ə de vivre says

    In the Pacific Northwest, geoducks are more of a “proud of this weird local thing” phenomenon (and source of amusement for adolescents, as one of nature’s more phallic creations [aside from phalluses themselves, which I guess are also nature’s creations]) rather than foodstuff. I don’t think I ever encountered someone who had eaten one.

    Except I think I had geoduck sushi once? But I might be remembering that from an overly Freudian dream.

  26. After we moved to Oregon when I was a kid, nobody in my family knew how to pronounce “geoduck.” We learned the correct pronunciation on a visit to an aquarium, where they were feeding chopped up geoducks to some of the pinnipeds.

    As ə de vivre says, they aren’t eaten by humans that much, although they are certainly available. I saw them on sushi menus, and they put them in the chowder at Mo’s restaurant in Newport.

  27. Hat, around where you are, do they say quahog, quohog, or cohog?

  28. “You’re being very confident here in your assertions. Why?”

    Attention Hat, seems we can now add age-ism to the snowflake’s cannon of reproach.

  29. Hat, around where you are, do they say quahog, quohog, or cohog?

    No idea — the subject never comes up!

  30. I take “pretty maids all in a row” to be some sort of clonal flower that propagates in a line, rather than a nonsensical situation. But I can’t find any evidence for this.

  31. @John Cowan: Well, it’s a metaphor for something about the flower beds, but I’ve never been sure what. When I was three, I imagined it rather literally, with something like the anthropomorphic flowers from Through the Looking Glass.

  32. The rhyme does say “cockle shells”. Surely that does give some idea what they might be.

    We don’t have cockles where I come from, either. The shellfish found in the sand are called pipis or eugaries. But I do have some vague idea what cockles are.

  33. The rhyme does say “cockle shells”. Surely that does give some idea what they might be.

    Well, sure, if you’re a philologist looking for hints as to meaning. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about such things, or at least I didn’t. I no more wondered what “cockle” might be than I wondered about the “rasp” in “raspberry” or why a sheep’s tail gave two shakes. It was just an expression I picked up and learned as a unit.

  34. @ john Cowan: As she wheeled her barrow,

    I learned the lyrics as “As she wheeled her wheelbarrow” Through streets wide and narrow…
    It doesn’t sing without the extra “wheel”, unless the stress is put on the “she”.

  35. David Marjanović says

    than I wondered about the “rasp” in “raspberry”

    I have in fact never wondered about the Him- in Himbeere. Wiktionary says it was hint- in MHG and OHG, and means “hind” (“female deer” as in Golden Hind). Not only didn’t I figure that out on my own, I pretty much couldn’t have; I had encountered Hindin only once (in a very literary context) and Hinde (the form Wiktionary mentions) never at all. The normal word is Hirschkuh “deer cow” and has been for centuries; and raspberries are associated with humans, not deer, in my mind.

    As it is, I’m actually surprised it isn’t *Himpbeere.

  36. Same here, even though in Danish we still spell it hindbær (peevers peeving about /himbɛʁ/) and hind is the only general word for female cervines (also used specifically for females of the red deer while the other long established species go like rå/råbuk/rådyr (roe deer, f/m/dunno) and då/dåbuk/dådyr (fallow deer)).

  37. I don’t believe cockles are nearly as common on Irish menus as on English. I wouldn’t recognise them, whereas I often eat mussels. “Molly Malone” was probably written outside Ireland; perhaps Dublin cockles are as mythical as the bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.

  38. January First-of-May says

    I’m having trouble thinking of obviously segmentable Russian terms for berries that aren’t just as obviously root+suffix (like черника “bilberry”, literally “the black one”, and ежевика “blackberry”[1], literally “the hedgehog-like one”).

    And the Russian for “raspberry”, малина, doesn’t feel segmentable at all (aside from the nominative ending).

    [1] or, rather, perhaps “dewberry” – the Russian term appears to be slightly wider than the English term, and the most common Russian species is apparently known as “dewberry” in English; or even, considering the etymology, perhaps “bramble”

  39. That’s the folk process in action. I do indeed stress it as you say: “as ‘she wheeled her ´barrow” is a little further from natural speech, but “wheeled her wheelbarrow” is both harder to articulate and semantically redundant.

  40. WP says MM was first published in Boston in a context that suggests it is English, which seems plausible to me. The narrator talks like a sentimentalized Irish expat in England.

  41. marie-lucie says

    David: perhaps the coquilles St. Jacques name was derived from cockle.

    But ‘cockle’ is supposed to be from ‘coquille’!

    In any case, the coquilles in question are scallops. Saint Jacques is Saint James, specifically the saint venerated at Saint Jacques de Compostelle, locally known as Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims returning from the holy site would take with them a few scallop shells tied together as proof that they had indeed made the journey (still made on foot by hardy pilgrims), and no doubt also in order for the noise of the shaking shells to attract both attention and alms on the return trip.

    The phrase structure coquilles Saint-Jacques, without the preposition de) is typical of medieval French, as also shown in place names such as Bourg-le-Roi, Bourg-la-Reine, where the modern structure would be Bourg du Roi/de la Reine ‘the King’s/Queen’s burg’.

  42. marie-lucie says

    poltroon, Fr poltron, both meaning ‘coward”

    I thought the word referred to a piece of furniture in Spanish. Almost: poltrona seems to mean ‘easy chair’ (French fauteuil) in Latin America.

  43. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Marie-Lucie, poltrona means armchair, or French fauteuil, in Italian. I believe it comes to Spanish from Italian, together with poltrón in the sense of ‘do-nothing’ rather than coward. In Italian, the connections between poltrona, poltrone and poltrire seem as obvious as those between a lazy chair, a lazy man and lazing around, though in fairness I don’t notice them when speaking of armchairs because they’re too common an object.

    @Homère and @John Cowan, I’m not familiar with “Molly Malone,” but I can hardly resist the temptation of scanning it as amphibrachic hexasyllables: “as she wheeled / her barrow” etc. with “th’ girls” and “th’ streets.” That’s appropriately ballad-sounding to me and it has the irresistible side effect of making the text singable to the tune of the Italian national anthem, complete with final shouting iamb if you time it right.

  44. It is indeed a ballad, as you can hear on YouTube. As in other English verse, additional unstressed syllables do not necessarily affect the meter. For example, this line from Sayers’s translation of the Inferno:

    For the terror of alighting was worse than the terror of falling

    (canto 27, line 121) counts as hendecasyllabic (iambic pentameter with a feminine ending) even though it has 17 actual syllables.

  45. per incuriam says


    Interestingly, Irish has a term “cochall an chroí” meaning “pericardium” and an expression “i gcochall mo chroí”, which is rendered as “in my very heart” (Dineen) and “deep down in my heart” (Ó Dónall), but its sense is better illustrated by this verse from the 18th century Limerick poet, Tadgh Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin

    Gile mo chroí do chroíse, a Shlánaitheoir,
    agus ciste mo chroí do chroíse a fháil i m’chomhair
    ós follas gur líon do chroí dom’ ghrása, a stóir,
    i gcochall mo chroí do chroíse fág i gcomhad.

    (The light of my heart your heart, O Saviour, and the treasure of my heart your heart to have in my presence, since it is clear that your heart filled with my love, O beloved, in the hollow of my heart your heart leave in store).

    The primary meaning of cochall, from Latin cucculus, is “hood”. It’s cognate with English “cowl”.

  46. Well, that sounds like a plausible etymology for the English expression to me.

  47. This rendition of “Molly Malone” just popped as I was listening to a folk music playlist on YouTube. Ronnie Drew, one of the quintessential Irish folk singers, uses the “wheeled her wheelbarrow” lyrics.

  48. this verse from the 18th century Limerick poet, Tadgh Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin

    That’s not even close to correct limerick form.

  49. There was a young man called Ó Súilleabháin
    Who thought rules of metre irreleabhain.
    “If one word is the best
    I won’t ditch all the rest
    Even if it makes the line far too long, I’ll just go right ahead and use aolleabhaim.”

  50. January First-of-May says

    That’s not even close to correct limerick form.

    I looked all over that poem for minutes trying to figure out if Irish spelling really is weird enough to make it a limerick before I realized that it’s intended as the place name.

    I wonder if there are any actual authentic limericks in Irish – at least, the ones that aren’t either translations of English ones, or only a few decades old at most (or both, obviously).

    (I liked ajay’s version, incidentally.)

  51. Trond Engen says

    For a lover of puns and goofy rhymes this is huimneach.

  52. Thank you. Apologies for the spelling.

  53. per incuriam says

    The name Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin is anglicizable as “Irish” Tim Sullivan. The nickname Gaelach apparently refers to some sort of deformity, with a semantic shift from an original sense of “common”, “ordinary”, as in dair ghaelach, the native (sessile) oak (as opposed to dair ghallda, the English or pedunculate oak).

    There once was a poet called Tim (sic!)
    Whose audience was wont to be dim (thick?)
    His verse metaphysical
    Left quite a few quizzical
    And searching instead for a lim (…)

  54. dair ghaelach
    Sorry, can’t resist:

    Launched in Australia last October, Suntory released 5,000 bottles of the 18 year-old single malt, which was solely aged in Japanese Mizunara Oak.

    Suntory says that early on, Mizunara displayed challenges to its blenders because it is a rare, hard and permeable wood, but chief blender and International Spirits Challenge judge, Shinji Fukuyo took on the task and sampled hundreds of whiskies to get the right balance.

    And the maiden name clearly rings a bell:

  55. per incuriam says

    Did you maybe post the wrong link? Apart from the more obvious incongruities, Dair Ghaelach is a pot still whiskey not a malt.

  56. It is just that the wood they are aged in is harvested locally.

    This is what triggered the association:

    Midleton Dair Ghaelach, is the first ever Irish whiskey to be finished in virgin Irish Oak Hogsheads. This uniquely Irish expression is the latest addition to the Midleton Single Pot Still family of whiskeys, satisfying the growing appetite among whisk(e)y lovers for discovering new and innovative styles of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.

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