Friday, July 19, 2013

Warms the cockles of my heart? WTF!

Yep, lots of hair in September 2002!
It is now eleven years since I joined this university.  Time flies when having fun!

When the summer ends, the annual ritual at any university includes a back-to-school address by the president.  In my early years, I made the mistake of attending those events and speeches.  Now, I know better, I think.

The president during those first three years was from Tennessee and not only spoke with a very different accent, but also used idioms and phrases that were new to me.  During his meandering address one year, he said something about how it warmed the cockles of his heart.

"What of his heart?" was my thought.

One of the advantages I have as very Indian looking and sounding fellow is that I can easily admit to not knowing any damn thing about the English language.  Plus, there are always people around who think they have to educate me; yes, I am being sarcastic!  Sometimes, faking ignorance is also my way of escaping from conversations in which I don't want to participate.  After all, only people who know me know how familiar I am with Americana!

Anyway, I was really lost with this cockles of my heart thing.  I asked a colleague who was seated next to me.  Unlike me, he was a "real American," if you know what I mean.  Well, he didn't know either.

Now, keep in mind that this was before the days of smartphones.  So, no googling while sitting in an auditorium, waiting for the whole damn thing to end.

The address finally ended.

As with practically every university, ours too has a tradition of lunch for faculty and staff after this event. Yes, those early years I went to that communal breaking of bread, until I figured out that the community existed only for the true believers, and I am not one.

I was waiting in the long line behind a Spanish language professor.  Another "real American."  An older colleague--she has retired--who was always gentle and humble.  The few times our paths crossed, we always stopped to chat.

Anyway, it was, after all, idle small talk time.  I asked her what the president meant by "cockles of my heart."

It stumped her.  It was one of those idioms that she had grown up with, she said, and that it meant an emotion of one being truly happy and content with whatever had happened.  But, otherwise, she was at a loss to explain what a cockle was and, therefore, what it meant to warm one's cockles.

Isn't that the case with many things we say and do?  We continue with some practices because, well, that is how it was.  We don't always pause to inquire about whatever it is that we believe in, or say, or do.  We often continue along the same rut that people before us traversed.

Thus, way back somebody came up with an expression of "warms the cockles of my heart" to mean contented happiness, and soon those string of words came to mean that sentiment without the users knowing what a cockle was.  Soon that rut becomes deeper and deeper and it gets difficult to even claw one's way out of it.

I suppose it will be fair to say that I have been trying to stay away from various ruts of life ever since my high school years.  Thus, after exploring what a cockle is and what that idiom meant, I decided that it was an awful rut that was not worth traversing.

Are you still wondering what a cockle is and how it fits into that phrase?  Let me tell you this much: we will all be better off with plain speaking.  As I often remind students, just tell me what you want to tell me and do not hide behind fancy-shmancy words.

If that doesn't satisfy you, well, google it yourself; I don't want to be held responsible for pushing you into that rut--you can fall into it yourself!


Ramesh said...

Oh come on ! Surely there is grace and art in using metaphors . The richness of the language is all about quaint expressions, allusions and the lot. For example I could say one of two things

- You do not understand the meaning of the word "lots"


- The caption in the photo is somewhat of an exaggeration and is a wishful , perhaps unwitting, yearning for something that might warm the cockles of his heart :)

Love your inquisitiveness. Almost no one would have been intrigues enough to find the origin of the phrase and then write a post about it years after. Thanks to you, I have learnt too what a cockle might be.

Sriram Khé said...

oh yeah, certainly, there is a place for poetic language ... but, if the audience doesn't know what the hell those words mean, then does it matter whether that was poetry or prose or gibberish?
like many instructors, i, too, punningly tell students to avoid metaphors like the plague ;)

now, about the "lots" ... compared to what i have now, well, that was lots. no, it was LOTS and LOTS :(
ah well ... as we say curse in tamizh, மயிரே போச்சு ;)

Sriram Khé said...

A friend emailed me her comments on this post, and includes this YouTube song ...

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

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