The whole X

The saga of the whole nine yards has been going on for some time now, focused on where the two parts of the idiom — nine and yards — come from; Michael Quinion has an article (last revised in 2005) on it here, and more recently Ben Zimmer has posted on Language Log on it, here and here (the latter with a cite for “all nine yards of goodies”). I’m going to suggest that this might be a fruitless search, akin to asking who the original Mac, Joe, Charlie, Stan, etc. was in vocatives addressed to men.

[Added 12 April: an update on the whole nine yards by Ben Zimmer is available here.]

What I’m suggesting is that THE WHOLE X ‘the entire matter, everything having to do with the matter’ is a formula with X filled in by various inventive expressions. Neutral expressions like the while thing/business/package might have been the model —

We had a blow-out celebration: champagne, ice sculptures, the whole thing/business/package.

but there are more colorful fillers for X.

There is, for example, the whole ball of wax, discussed by Quinion in a posting that mentions other instances of THE WHOLE X:

X = nine yards, shooting match, megillah, shebang, enchilada

In thinking about this one, I was first reminded of Shepherd Mead’s 1954 novel The Big Ball of Wax, and Quinion was too, but then Quinion found cites going back to 1882. The origin of ball of wax is still unclear, though Quinion speculates that bailiwick might have been the source.

I’m especially fond of the whole megillah (which has various spellings), whose history is, in a sense, well known. It starts with the Hebew word for ‘scroll’. The word comes to English via Yiddish, in the meaning ‘long and tedious story’ (some details in the OED (draft revision of June 2001), with a first attestation  from 1943; Quinion gives a more detailed story here). The development to the ‘everything’ sense seems fairly natural. The OED has a the whole megillah cite from 1974, and others have suggested that the expression made it into the public eye in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In in 1971 — representing then-current show-business usage — and spread from there.

Then there’s the whole schmear (again, variously spelled), which is not on Quinion’s list. This one again comes to English via Yiddish and show business. It’s attested (in this usage) since at least 1969, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (2001). The question is how a borrowed word that meant ‘dab, as of cream cheese, spread on a roll, bagel, or the like’ came to also mean ‘a number of related things, ideas, ideas,…’ (, taken from the Random House Dictionary). It’s not hard to speculate on a route: a schmear is smeared all over some bready substance, so that it covers everything.

In any case, the pattern THE WHOLE X ‘everything, …’ has been around for a while, and the X slot has been filled in many ways, some straightforward, some figurative. Surely, many who heard (and then used) the whole megillah, the whole schmear, the whole ball of wax, and so on had no real appreciation of where the fillers of the X slot came from; these fillers were, in effect, nonsense expressions, notable only because they were so not everyday. Which gives people license to play with the pattern.

The pattern is somewhere in that gray area between idioms with open slots in them, on the one hand, and snowclones, on the other, and I don’t want to try to adjudicate the issue. The pattern is certainly formulaic. As a  snowclone, THE WHOLE X would have the remarkable feature that some of the fillers of the X slot are — to a great many speakers — opaque in meaning, which is what makes the pattern look like an idiom.

[A note on the generic vocatives for men (and parallel vocatives for women). I’m sometimes astonished at how many people try to discover the “original referents” of these names. I recently discovered several veins of response to the Allstate television commericials in which spokesperson Dennis Haysbert stares seriously into the camera, addressing someone named Stan (as in “It’s Allstate, Stan”). There are websites where people maintain that he’s really saying “That’s Allstate’s stand” —  two posters here  — presumably because they can’t believe that Haysbert is addressing some unknown man named Stan.

And then there are the people who want to know who Stan is:

Possibly the most focussed mass market media campaign ever. Who is this ‘Stan’ guy and why does this guy [Haysbert] and Allstate want his business so badly?  (Richardo, here)

[Note 12 April: I’m wrong about the Allstate commercial here. See the comments.]]

One Response to “The whole X”

  1. mud and flame Says:

    I’m not sure if you’re joking about the Allstate commercials, but the spokesman does in fact say “that’s Allstate’s stand”:

    Anyway, I’m not surprised that these generic names would cause confusion–aren’t they all rather dated slang? The only one I definitely recognize as generic is Mac, which I think of as both regional and old-fashioned. I’ve never heard Charlie used as a generic vocative except in the catchphrase “sorry, Charlie,” which I probably haven’t heard in twenty years, and I’ve never heard Joe or Stan used that way at all.

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