It’s a funny thing. When I was younger I and my contemporaries used to raise our eyebrows and sigh contemptuously when older folk banged on about how things were not like they were in the (usually good) old days. But I find that I now I have reached a certain age, this is what I am doing too. We were having a discussion about childhood and the way children were brought up these days and one of our party ventured the opinion that they were mollycoddled, a verb (in this case in its passive form) used to indicate the treatment of someone in an indulgent or over-protective way. It struck me as an interesting compound verb worthy of some investigation.
Molly was an acknowledged pet name for a woman called Mary but over time became associated with the low living. The play The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, written around 1611, told the life story of one Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse, a notorious bandit of the time. Whether this usage set a precedent or was a reflection of an established idiom is unclear but from around that time molly began to be used as slang for a prostitute or a woman of ill-repute
In the 18th century, however, it gained another connotation, referring to effeminate or homosexual men. Miss Molly was used as a pejorative term for what we would now term a gay and a molly house was a male brothel. Today, molly has another meaning, used to describe a pure form of the drug, MDMA, or ecstasy.
Coddle appeared in print somewhat later. Jane Austen’s Emma, published in 1815, contained the line, “be satisfied with doctoring and coddling yourself”. It is clear that the sense here is of looking after yourself, resting up, letting your body recover from whatever is ailing you. The other meaning associated with the verb is to cook at just below boiling point, to parboil. It is probable that it was linked to the noun, caudle, which was used to describe a warm drink given to the sick, which in turn almost certainly owed its origin to an abbreviation of the Latin noun, calidus, meaning warm,.
Caudle first appeared in 1297 and a recipe dating to the early 14th century lists the ingredients of caudle as wine, wheat starch, raisins and some sugar “to abate the strength of the wine”. A more detailed recipe dating from the late 14th century recommends mixing breadcrumbs, wine, sugar or honey and saffron together, bringing them to the boil, adding egg yolks and sprinkling with salt, sugar and ginger. It was particularly administered to women in their pregnancy.
One of the earliest usages of mollycoddle, as a noun, appeared in William Thackeray’s Pendennis, published in 1849. There the eponymous hero is told, “you have been bred up as a molly-coddle, Pen, and spoilt by the women”. This has the modern sense and it is clear that molly has its pejorative sense of softness, if not effeminacy.
So there we have it, a fascinating word with an interesting history.