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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.

Knit / Knot

Don’t hunker, hanker!

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve been learning to tie knots in my old age just for fun. My wife is learning knitting and I realized that that craft is essentially serial knot tying. Are “knit” and “knot” versions of the same word? — Bruce Brantley.

That sounds like fun. Good, cheap fun, which is, of course, not what this economy needs. I want you two to put down your ropes and yarn this instant and go buy something you don’t want or need. How about a couple of those blanket things you wear, the ones that make you look like a giant Ewok? Home doughnut makers are big this year, and several companies are offering vacuum cleaner attachments for dogs. Dogs just love being vacuumed. Velcro denture tape? Solar-powered beer maker? Talking screwdriver? I bought five of those, and they’re awesome.

Never mind. You guys just keep knitting and knotting, and I’ll sit here musing over what a weird word “vacuum” is. OK, back to work. “Knot” and “knit” aren’t exactly versions of the same word, but they are closely related.

“Knot” is the more basic of the words, although it’s not really possible to say it came first because both words are so old. “Knot” first appeared in Old English with the meaning, still the primary one today, of “an intertwining of cords, ropes, etc., made in order to fasten something together or attach something to another object.” In Old English “knot” was “cnotta,” which came from Old Germanic roots, specifically “knutton,” to which we will return shortly. The general meanings of these words was “knot” as we use it today, but there are indications that a bit further back the word may have originally meant “lump” or “knob,” which makes sense since, if you tie a knot in a rope, you have indeed created a sort of lump.

Apart from its literal uses, especially in the names of the dizzying variety of knots invented over the centuries, “knot” has been used in a variety of extended and figurative uses. One biggie is described by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) thus: “A piece of knotted string fastened to the log-line, one of a series fixed at such intervals that the number of them that run out while the sand-glass is running indicates the ship’s speed in nautical miles per hour; hence, each of the divisions so marked on the log-line, as a measure of the rate of motion of the ship (or of a current, etc.).” Modern ships do not, of course, carry sand-glasses or actual log lines (a rope attached to a small log of wood), but their speed (and that of the wind at sea) is still measured in “knots” (and “knots per hour” is, of course, redundant).

We also use “knot” to mean “a lump,” especially in a muscle or the like, a stressful situation is said to “tie us up in knots,” and the “knot” of a problem is the central point of contention. The most famous “knot” in historical mythology was the Gordian Knot, tied by King Gordius of Phrygia. Legend had it that whoever untied the complex knot would conquer Asia; Alexander the Great supposedly took a bold shortcut and cut through it with his sword. To “cut the Gordian knot” thus means to solve a problem with creative, decisive (and possibly not quite sporting) action.

“Knit,” as I mentioned above, also first appeared in Old English (as “cnyttan”), and also comes from Germanic roots, the same that produced “knot,” branching off from “knot” somewhere back around that Old Germanic “knutton.” The original meaning of “knit” in English was “to tie in or with a knot,” and people would say “knit a knot” as we say “tie a knot.” The modern sense of “form a close texture by interweaving loops of yarn or twine” dates back to the early 16th century. The tight weave of knitted fabric led to the use of “knit” to mean “draw closely together, make firm; concentrate or make compact” or “to grow closely together” as a broken bone eventually “knits” as it heals. “Knit” can also mean “to mend,” as Shakespeare famously noted in Macbeth (“Sleepe that knits up the ravel’d Sleeve of Care,” 1616). Bees clustering in a tight mass are said to “knit,” and when we are worried or angry, we “knit our brows” as our facial muscles tense. Personally, I’ve found that happens mostly when I watch TV news or read the internet. Or think too much.

Of course “knitting” with yarn is famous for its calming effects, so perhaps I just need to follow your wife’s example and knit a few mittens and scarves for the cats. But I’m still gonna keep my talking screwdrivers for company.