early 14c., "heart or inmost part of anything" (especially an apple, pear, etc.), of uncertain origin, probably from Old French cor, coeur "core of fruit, heart of lettuce," literally "heart," from Latin cor "heart," from PIE root *kerd- "heart."
Meaning "a central portion cut and removed" (as from a tree, soil, etc.) is from 1640s. Meaning "internal mold of a casting, which fills the space intended to be left hollow" is from 1730. Nuclear physics sense "portion of a reactor containing the nuclear fuel and where the reactions take place" is from 1949.