Collywobbles and mulligrubs
Next month I’m engaged to deliver a series of lectures to some students and I must confess the thought of it is giving me the collywobbles. We use collywobbles these days in a figurative sense to describe that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a flight of butterflies seem to be flapping around. It conveys the sense of nervousness or apprehension. But where did this strange word come from?
The first known usage of the word in print is, surprisingly, as a verb rather than a noun. A letter written by Barré Charles Roberts, dated 1 May 1807and reprinted in the posthumous Letters and Miscellaneous Papers by Barré Charles Roberts in 1814 contains the rather mystifying sentence, “if you print any criticisms upon it, I will colly-wobble your arguments into nothing.” The intent is clear – the author will make mincemeat of or ridicule his opponent’s arguments – but the sense of collywobble is out of line with anything else we find elsewhere.
Pierce Egan in his 1823 update of Grose’s invaluable Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined collywobbles as the gripes. If this is the case, then it is easy to see how a description of an actual malady could transition into a figurative description of an uneasy feeling in the stomach. The case for suggesting that the origin relates to some ailment in the stomach is strengthened by this sentence, to be found in Cuthbert Bede’s The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, published in 1853; “a touch of the milligrubs in your collywobbles.”
Mulligrubs, always found in the plural, is a word of greater vintage, appearing in print in the late 16th century with a spelling of mulliegrums. It may owe its origin to the word for a headache, megrims, a typical Anglo-Saxon mash-up of the French word, migraine. As well as someone suffering from a humdinger of a headache, it was used more figuratively to describe someone who is in low spirits or a tad depressed. Its usage in this sense is perfectly illustrated in William Cowpre Brann’s Brann the Iconoclast of 1898; “It is easy enough to say that a pessimist is a person afflicted with an incurable case of mulligrubs — one whom nothing in all earth or Heaven or Hades pleases; one who usually deserves nothing, yet grumbles if he gets it.”
So it may well be that some kind of stomach complaint would get you down but why collywobbles? Colly meant in English dialect, coal dust. Incidentally, the four calling birds that you may have sung about in the bewilderingly popular Twelve Days of Christmas were originally colly birds – something to remember for next year! Ingesting coal dust is more likely to give you a chest infection than a bad stomach but perhaps colly was used as a descriptor of the colour of the emissions from your body after a stomach complaint. Alternatively, it may be a euphemism for a complaint which went by the name of cholera morbus, probably what we would call today gastroenteritis – unpleasant enough, for sure, but not fatal unlike cholera. Wobble may refer to the state that a touch of it would leave you. As with many a word, its origin is far from certain.
Still, collywobbles, once it had found its place in popular vernacular, lent itself to humorous use. In October 1841 Punch released this rib-cracker on to the unsuspecting British public; ““to keep him from getting the collywobbles in his pandenoodles.” A Mully grub in Australian slang is a form of witchetty grub and a mullygrubber in cricket is a ball which slides along the ground, rather than bouncing. And there is a place called Collywobbles in South Africa. I fondly imagine that the butterflies there are a sight for sore eyes.