To have the literal collywobbles is to experience an upset stomach, a bellyache or the gripes. Its risible form may be the reason why it’s most often used for children’s minor ailments rather than for the indispositions of adults. In books and newspapers it’s almost always employed figuratively to refer to that fluttering in the stomach caused by nervousness or apprehension.
But it’s that terrible, tooth-furring nervousness of the BBC; the corporation gets the collywobbles whenever a programme is essentially serious.
The Spectator, 6 Nov. 2010.
The first known use in print is from 1823, in an edition of Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue that Pierce Egan revised and updated.
It may have been created from colic plus wobble, which implies that some humour was attached to it from its beginnings. This seems inappropriate for a term that was linked at the time to a genuinely serious intestinal upset. Another theory says it was the result of folk etymology, in which uneducated people converted the medical term for cholera, cholera morbus, into something that seemed to make more sense. As so often, nobody knows for sure.
There remains one small puzzle, however. I found this while looking for examples:
I entreat you by no means to think of undertaking a review when I publish any thing; if you print any criticisms upon it, I will colly-wobble your arguments into nothing.
In a letter by Barré Charles Roberts to his mother from Christ Church, Oxford, dated 1 May 1807, reprinted in Letters and Miscellaneous Papers by Barré Charles Roberts, 1814. Roberts died in 1810, only two years after graduating, but had already become a sufficiently notable antiquary and numismatist that after his death his coin collection was bought by the British Museum for a substantial sum.
What did he mean, if other than a teasing nonsensicality? All we can say for certain about Mr Roberts’s usage is that it confirms the term was known earlier than Pierce Egan’s recording of it in 1823, which is hardly surprising.