Saturday, August 25, 2012


I don't think there's anything magical about it, but it's funny how often an unknown word will come to me twice in a short space of time. I had noticed the word 'codling' in a historical novel I'm reading about John Donne's family called Conceit by Mary Novik. It's a well researched and thoughtful book that captures the atmosphere of 17th century England and in its early pages, we find John Donne's mare Parrot nuzzling his arm, begging for a codling. "The Dean selected an apple, polished it on his sleeve, then held it out on his palm." From this I gathered that a codling was some sort of apple, and thought it was interesting that I hadn't heard the term before.

I might have forgotten it, though, if a few nights later I wasn't up at Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of Twelfth Night, and heard Malvolio describe Cesario--ie, Viola-- to Olivia.

    Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a
cooling when 'tis almost an apple: 'tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man.

Between the two references, I guess we can take it that a codling is an unripe apple.

Now though I'd like to pretend that I'd never heard the word before, I have in fact seen Twelfth Night many times, and even once recited a passage not many lines from the above, so I have heard it--I've just never noticed it. And if I'd had to take a wild guess out of context, I would have hazarded that a codling was a small cod. Apple wouldn't have been in the top one hundred. So...two questions. Do people still talk about codlings in this way, just out of my hearing? And why is it called something so unrelated?


You know, I really thought this was going to be fairly simple. That's why I'm rushing it in on a Saturday night when I could be doing other (though probably not better) things. For it turns out that codling even somewhat eludes the great Anatoly Liberman, at least if we are to judge by his paragraphs on it in Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. In it, he tells us that the word codling, or codlin, has had "almost unbelievable adventures". It's been written as quadling and quodling, which in the 15th century were also rendered as querling and querdelyng. As unripe fruits, they were pretty astringent, and a folk etymology grew up around them that they were called codlings because they had to be 'coddled' or slowly stewed before being suitable to eat, apparently with cream.

Liberman apparently finds another etymology sounder, that which ties the word to Richard the Lion-Hearted. How so, you ask? And well you might. Apparently, that lion-hearted bit is rendered in French as couer-de-lion, which became the family names Querdelioun and Querdling, andeventually in Norfolk, Quadling and Quodling. Liberman does admit that he finds that giving a sour little fruit such an esteemed name seems a bit illogical, but I suppose stranger things have happened.

I'm never going to second guess Liberman on what's a sound etymology and what isn't, but despite this aura of other things floating around the apple--or appling/--I wonder if it isn't all a bit simpler than that.  A codd, in Middle English, is a sack or a husk, a kell or caul, and so on. All mean a kind sheath around something, and often, as in the peascod which is also in the above Shakespeare quotation,the protective hull of the seeds or germs of new life it carries within. It is also the cod of codpiece,which was why codling was also according to Bardopathy, slang for the scrotum or testicles. I'm not sure that it's really so difficult to think of the apple as a codd of its own precious seed, or to take it a bit further and see that a cod that is not quite developed would be a codling.

As for the first question--whether codling is a common term for unripe apples still, apple growers, I must appeal to you...

Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andre Aguecheek in the current production.


  1. Oh, what delight you present here! I wondered if "coddling" would work itself into your explanation, and it did! Oh, and all the other possibilities seem pertinent, especially to Shakespeare's wordplay (down to the codpiece)! Thank you, thank you.

    And I am delighted that you have seen the Santa Cruz Twelfth Night. I imagine that my brother's family has also! I have played both Olivia and Viola in productions of this, never having researched "codling" (only hearing it in its unripe apple context) and remembering "peascod" and "standing water" quite well upon reading this!

  2. Ah, yes, you're mysterious brother that I've never met. I wonder if they had the same impression of it that my friend and I did, which was that the comic roles were some of the best I've ever seen played, while the romances got a bit buried.

    I'm not surprised you've played the women. I only did a small bit from it.

  3. Someday you will run into each other. Probably in the bookstore!