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.