Phrase Origin: Beyond the/a shadow of a doubt

One of the things I wanted to do when I first started this blog was to do posts on phrase origins every once in a while. However, I never got around to doing it because I couldn’t ever pick out a phrase that I particularly wanted to look up. My opportunity to remedy this came this past Sunday.

In the Mormon world, there are a lot of stereotypical Mormon phrases that are tossed around. Every time someone uses one of these words or sayings Husband and I roll our eyes at each other and laugh at the highly over used jargon (so if any of you ever use one of them while we are out in the audience you have been warned, we will show no mercy). The phrase we will discuss today is SUCH an overused Mormon phrase that whenever I hear someone outside of church use this phrase I always have the “are they Mormon?” thought run through my head.

And so I present to you: “Beyond the/a shadow of a doubt”:

referenced from Wikipedia.com here because, believe it or not, they had the most thorough answer

Definition

“A standard of proof. The phrase means the issue in question is so obvious, or has been so thoroughly proven, that there can exist no doubt. Two possible interpretations of “Beyond a shadow” might refer, first, to the fact that doubt could be nowhere in the vicinity (completely expelled from the issue), or second, to the thoroughness of the argument (a shadow being even less substantial than a doubt itself).”

According to wiki, the phrase falls on a continuum of certainty. There example being:

  1. air of reality – only having the traces of truth
  2. preponderance of the evidence – it is more likely than not
  3. clear and convincing evidence – it is substantially more likely than not
  4. beyond a reasonable doubt – no reasonable doubt could be raised
  5. beyond the shadow of a doubt – no doubt whatsoever could be raised

History

Beyond the shadow of a doubt, or beyond a shadow of a doubt appears to be a phrase that has grown up in the colloquial, predominantly from the simpler form “beyond a doubt,” circa 1300.

Other notable uses of the exact phrase shadow of (a) doubt include:

  • popular news print around 1820
  • The Scarlet Letter, novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850.
  • The Gondoliers, operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan, 1889: “Of that there is no manner of doubt—no probable, possible shadow of doubt”
  • “The Trial by Existence”, poem by Robert Frost, 1915.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, novel by Harper Lee, 1960, wherein Atticus Finch states: “The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There’s always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent.”

I was quite surprised that this phrase can be traced back to 1300, pretty impressive. Now next time your friends uses this phrase you can tell them that they are inadvertently using an impossible standard of proof upon which they are basing their argument. Tell me how well that goes over with all your friends. :)

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