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The Armchair Ornithologist.

[Note: as will shortly become obvious, this column was written last December.]

Dear Word Detective:  What is a “smalas”? Jules Verne uses it in “An Antarctic Mystery” (Chapter X) when looking at a flock of penguins. As he usually uses “stupid” in front of the word “penguin,” I’m assuming it’s derogatory. All I can come up with is a reference to the entourage that follows an Arab sheik where ever he goes, so I don’t really get what Jules means. Can you help? — Rose Hopwood.

That’s a darn good question. Speaking of penguins, something occurred to me recently while I was lying insensate in front of the TV, hypnotized by the non-stop barrage of holiday shopping ads. It’s a good thing I don’t have any money, or I’d be up to my eyebrows in iPhones, iPads, iPads for Pets, iBlenders and iPlumberSnakes. Anyway, what’s up with Santa Claus and the penguins that have begun to appear with him in many commercials? Because there are, in fact, no penguins, none, nada, at the North Pole. Penguins live mostly in Antarctica, at the other end of the freaking planet. Hmmph. When it comes to Santa Claus, I expect zoological accuracy. Now about those reindeer…

Thanks for asking about a word that appears in a public-domain book. It’s very dispiriting when someone asks a question about something they found in a book to which my only access involves ponying up $25 to Amazon. But “An Antarctic Mystery” is available freely on the internet.

Verne certainly seems to be out of step with our modern adoration of penguins. As you note, it’s rare to find a mention of them in his 1897 book without that pejorative adjective nearby (“These stupid birds, in their yellow and white feathers, with their heads thrown back and their wings like the sleeves of a monastic habit, look, at a distance, like monks in single file walking in procession along the beach,” Chapter I). One doesn’t have to be an ornithologist to find that level of antipathy toward an innocent little bird weird, and it’s even weirder given the fact that Verne had never been anywhere near Antarctica (or even the southern Indian Ocean, the setting of the story) when he wrote the book.

In any case, the relevant passage in Chapter X describes the penguins’ entirely understandable reaction to the approach of Verne’s protagonist: “Whole ‘smalas’ of penguins, standing motionless in interminable rows, brayed their protest against the invasion of an intruder — I allude to myself.”

By “smalas” Verne apparently means “large group, crowd,” and his placement of the term in quotation marks could be taken as an indication that it is a zoological term or what James Lipton (author of the wonderful collection of such terms “An Exaltation of Larks”) called a “term of venery,” such as “pride of lions” or “murder of crows.” But Verne’s use of “smalas” is an extended sense of a term he had no doubt picked up from adventure books himself, and its origin has as little to do with penguins as Verne himself did.

You won’t find “smalas” in an English dictionary because it’s French, and in that language a “smala” or “smalah” is simply an “entourage,” a group of people who routinely accompany a person of power or prestige. In Hollywood, for instance, a famous actor’s “smala” would probably consist of several childhood friends, a few assistants, a bodyguard or two, a broker and a botox artist. Here at Word Detective World Headquarters, my “smala” seems to consist largely of cats, though I do have two dogs on call in case the UPS guy shows up.

The root of “smala” in French is the Arabic word “zmalah,” meaning “tribe,” which originally meant the large retinue accompanying a sheik or other leader on a journey across the desert. Such a group would include other nobility, a contingent of soldiers, and a complete household staff (cooks, servants, etc.). Non-human traveling companions in the “zmalah” routinely included squadrons of camels, of course, but also flocks of sheep and enough furniture and knicknacks to fill a Pottery Barn. Not your usual weekend camping trip, in other words.

Verne’s use of “smala” to mean simply “herd” or “large group” is a bit of a stretch, but by Chapter X he must have pretty much exhausted his thesaurus of terms for lots of birds. And using an exotic term like “smalas” also adds a soupçon of authenticity to a story written by a guy who wouldn’t have known a penguin if it had, justifiably, bitten him.

Shadow of a Doubt

Trust me.

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve got two questions for you: 1) where did the phrase “beyond a shadow of a doubt” come from, and 2) which is more correct, “beyond a shadow of a doubt” or “without a shadow of a doubt”? I believe the latter is not right, maybe because doubt probably casts a long shadow no matter what, so you want to be beyond that shadow. I’ve been hearing the “without” version on stupid late-night infomercials. — P.J.S. Hutchinson.

Hey, I love infomercials. I saw a weirdly fascinating one for a vacuum cleaner the other day. It’s a cheap imitation Dyson, and they spent the first few minutes lavishly praising the real Dyson and its supposedly awesome virtues. It could have been an unusually informative Dyson commercial. Suddenly, even though we own two elderly but functional Sears vacuum cleaners, I wanted a Dyson. But then they pointed out, rather bluntly, “Let’s face it. You’re in no position to spend $600 on an awesome vacuum cleaner, so you might as well buy ours.” Thanks, guys, I feel poorer already.

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt” and similar phrases mean “absolutely true, without any possibility of negation” applied to a statement of fact.  As such, “beyond a shadow of a doubt” doesn’t work well with subjective statements of preference, taste, or emotional state, and announcing that “I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, happier with my cheapo plastic vacuum than you will ever be with your dumb old Dyson” is unlikely to be accepted by listeners. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt” also has no place in a courtroom (except as hyperbolic rhetoric), where the standard in US criminal trials is usually that the defendant must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a lower hurdle than “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Just when “beyond a shadow of a doubt” first appeared is hard to pin down, but the equivalent “without doubt” (meaning “absolutely true”) appeared in the early 16th century, and “shadow of a doubt” was popular in the 19th century. “Doubt,” of course, basically means “uncertainty” and comes ultimately from the Latin “dubitare,” meaning “to waver in opinion.” “Doubt” is also related to the word “dubious,” which can mean both “full of doubt” (“Bob was dubious about his chances of surviving the camping trip”) and “of uncertain outcome; questionable” (“The dubious land deal backfired and Jim landed in jail”).

The key part of “shadow of a doubt,” however, is “shadow.” Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in its most basic literal sense as “Comparative darkness, especially that caused by interception of light; a tract of partial darkness produced by a body intercepting the direct rays of the sun or other luminary,” our modern “shadow” first appeared in the 13th century from the same Germanic roots that gave us “shade.”

Apart from that literal “you’re standing in my light” sense, “shadow” has acquired a slew of figurative meanings over the past few centuries. A “shadow” can be a person who closely (and sometimes surreptitiously) follows (“shadows”) us, a weak or vague version or vestige of something or someone (“a shadow of the star he once was”), a sense of gloom, an emotional impediment (“Bob’s accident cast a shadow over their friendship”), the stubble of a beard on a man’s face (“five o’clock shadow”), or the influence or proximity of a person, place or thing (“His years in the shadow of his more famous brother were spent in the shadows of the Rockies, which he loathed”).

The use of “shadow” to mean a “dim vestige” or “remnant” of something once grand mentioned above leads us to the “shadow” in “shadow of doubt.” Here “shadow” means “a small amount, a trace or hint” of something, as opposed to something solid or substantial. Thus the “shadow” in “shadow of a doubt” should not be taken too literally, as if doubt itself were casting a shadow from under which one must step in order to be trusted. It’s more the sense that the “shadow of a doubt” is a just a tiny hint, an inexpressible hunch, that something that seems true might be less than absolutely true.

Given that we’re talking a metaphorical “shadow” twice-removed from that “blocking the light” sense, the distinction between “beyond a shadow of a doubt” and “without a shadow of a doubt” is nearly meaningless. “Beyond” does evoke a process of trust or belief gradually increasing to the point of complete certainty, but in the end “beyond a shadow” and “without a shadow” describe the same state of trustworthiness, and both phrases are considered “correct.”


What ails you.

Dear Word Detective:  I always wondered where the word “mulligrubs” came from. I heard my grandparents use it once, and upon a bit of research it turns out that it is also a TV series. I would have to guess that it comes from French, but I honestly have no clue. — Max.

“Mulligrubs” are new to me, but they sound delicious. Actually, come to think of it, I think I vaguely remember a TV commercial for them. Suburban family dinner table, Mom waves a ladle full of something that seems to be moving and says, “More mulligrubs, Bobby?” Next scene is Bobby in Mexico guzzling a mason jar of tequila and mumbling, “The horror, the horror.”

There actually is a creature called a “mully-grub,” at least in Australia. It’s a kind of grub that feeds on coarse grain, and the “mully” part is an old English word meaning “dusty or  mealy.” “Mully-grub” is also used as a term of abuse (“Oh! a plague rat tha! Ya mulligrub Gurgin!” 1746). The “gurgin” in that quote, incidentally, would today be spelled “gurgeon,” and also means “coarse flour”; the grub in question often goes by the full name “mully-grub-gurgeon.” The Australian TV series “Mulligrubs,” aimed at preschool children, apparently took its name from these cute little critters.

None of that, however, has much (if anything) to do with the “mulligrubs” your grandparents probably meant. Those “mulligrubs” (always in the plural form) are a state of depression or low spirits (also known at various times as “the dumps,” “the blues,” “the doldrums” and, of course, “the mubble fubbles,” which I am not making up). The “mulligrubs” can also be simply a bout of crankiness or a bad mood (“When any of the brothers had the mooligrubs or sullens, she would tell him she would whip him,” 1933).

But wait! There’s more! The “mulligrubs” can also mean gastric distress ranging from a bout of indigestion to a severe stomach ache or worse (“I had the 24-hour mulligrubs last night,” 1973).

“Mulligrubs” first appeared in print in the late 16th century, and its origin is considered “uncertain.” But there’s a good chance that it’s related to the earlier (15th century) word “megrim,” which first meant simply “a severe headache,” but later took on the same meaning of  “depression, low spirits” as “mulligrubs.” The roots of “megrim,” thankfully, are a bit more certain than those of “mulligrubs.” It’s simply an Anglicized version of the Middle French “migraine.”

“Mulligrubs” is fairly common as a folk term in both Britain and the US, and, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), it’s most popular in the southern US. Alternate spellings include “mollygrooms,” “mollygrubs,” “muddigrubs,” “mullygrubs,” and “mullygrumps.”

An interesting notation in the DARE entry for “mulligrubs” compares that word to the disease known as “the collywobbles,” which sounds like something out of Dr. Seuss, but apparently is just the “mulligrubs” by an even weirder name. The term “collywobbles” is thought to have originated as a folk rendition of “cholera morbus,” a 19th century medical term for gastro-intestinal disease that resembled cholera but lacked cholera’s epidemic punch and fatality rate. The “collywobbles” would today be more accurately called “gastroenteritis” in most cases. DARE suggests that “collywobbles” might also have been influenced by the words “colic” (severe pain in the belly) and “wobbles,” which the “collywobbles” would definitely give you.