I'm teaching English to a few private students here in Lyon, and the other day one of them was talking about a persistent cough she had; perhaps it was la coqueluche. This was a new word for me, but after another student explained it was a childhood disease featuring a cough, I guessed it meant "whooping cough," and the dictionary confirmed this. What an interesting word! And one that didn't seem to have any relation to its meaning.

After the lesson, I turned, of course, to the Dictionnaire Historique (where, as in Robert & Collins, coqueluche follows right after coquelicot, "poppy," a word which enchanted me when I first learned it sometime in my youth), and learned that M. Rey doesn't know the etymology of coqueluche and nor does anyone else.

It used to mean a sort of capuchon, or pointed monk's hood. It may have a connection with coque (shell of a fruit or an egg) or coquille (mollusc in its shell), but if so it's by means of what M. Rey calls un processus inexpliqué.

Equally unexplained is the word's change of meaning from the monk's hood to the disease.  Perhaps because the disease affected the whole head like a hood, or because sick people wrapped themselves up in hooded cloaks, or because they felt hot with fever, as if wearing a hooded cloak. No-one knows, but folk etymology took over, as people began calling the kind of cough typical of this disease chant du coq (which makes sense because of the way the cough sounds) although the word coqueluche has nothing to do with the bird coq.

From 1625 a metaphorical meaning developed; to be the coqueluche of a person or family means to be the spoilt darling, the one everyone makes a fuss over. In this expression, says Rey, coqueluche still carries the meaning of capuchon, a hood or head covering. A similar metaphor is at work with, for example, toque, a cap or hat, and être toqué de quelq'un meaning to be infatuated with them.

Well, the etymology is obscure, but I can still enjoy the sound of coqueluche--of the word, that is; the sound of the disease is another matter, and a worrying one to epidemiologists, because there's been a recent rise in whooping cough cases and deaths in places, like the US, where previously everyone was vaccinated against it.

Coquelicot, coqueluche, coquilles saint Jacques, coquillage, coquetier, coquinerie....on just one page of the dictionary, so much verbal delight! The words are delicious in the mouth, crunchy, almost croquant. Which leads me to a French tour de force to finish up with, both verbal and culinary: croquembouche, a pyramind of cream-filled choux pastry balls.

Bon appetit!