Ask AMZ

Two usage queries came to me recently: one on uses of a noun doxy; one on two informal idioms (the whole shooting match and wham, bam, thank you ma’am (with some variant versions)): Max Vasilatos reported coming across two Californian young men, one of whom didn’t understand the first, the other of whom didn’t understand the second.

doxy. From Ann Burlingham, a note from dictionary.com saying that doxy is a very rare noun (too rare for NOAD2 and unfamiliar to me) meaning either ‘opinion; doctrine’ or ‘religious views’. In either case, with an etymology going back to Greek doxa ‘opinion’, as in English paradox, orthodox, and heterodox.

What NOAD2 does have, however, is the archaic noun doxy, referring to ‘a lover or mistress’ or ‘a prostitute’ (first attested in mid 16th century slang, of unknown origin). Chris Waigl noted on Facebook that the variant spelling doxie is occasionally attested; indeed, I thought that’s the way the word was spelled.

The idiom circus. It’s hard to know what’s going on when people report that they don’t understand some idiom that occurs with fair frequency in modern English, as these two do. Either the people have not in fact come across the idiom, because of an accident in their experience or because the idiom has passed out of fashion (that’s why the age of Max’s informants might be relevant), or the people have come across the idiom but haven’t registered it in their memory (I have a modest collection of cases where I can be certain that an informant has actually read or heard some usage but just didn’t appreciate it).

Slang certainly does pass out of fashion. One of my favorites is the idiom take a powder ‘run away’ or simply ‘leave’; unless you’re a fan of 1920s-1940s gangster novels and movies, this idiom will be unfamiliar to you and will be mystifying.

Back to the whole shooting match and wham bam thank you ma’am. On the first, from the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary (2nd ed.):

the whole shooting match  (informal)  the whole of something, including everything that is connected with it There are four projects at present and Gerry’s in charge of the whole shooting match.

And then, from Wikipedia:

The Whole Shootin’ Match is a 1978 American independent film directed and co-written by Eagle Pennell and starring Sonny Carl Davis, Lou Perryman and Doris Hargrave.

In fact, this idiom is part of a cluster of American idioms. From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words, in an entry from 7/6/02 (last updated 5/3/06):

Q From James Cameron in Australia: What is the history and origin of the term the whole ball of wax? I have heard explanations indicating that it is derived from workers at Madame Tussauds, but this seems a bit contrived, not to mention trite. [Quinion agrees that Madame Tussauds is very unlikely.] I have also heard that it is derived from the term the whole bailiwick. This sounds more convincing to me, but it may be just as contrived. I would appreciate your learned opinion.

A If I had a learned opinion, you would be welcome to it, but mine is almost as much based on ignorance as the next man’s. However, we do know a few facts, and I can add a couple of new ones.

What we do know is that the whole ball of wax is everything and so essentially means the same as other American expressions such as the whole nine yards, the whole shooting match, the whole megillah, the whole shebang and the whole enchilada. Until recently, its first appearance was in the ninth edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary of 1953 and was assumed to be of that period. It turns out to be much older.

… The earliest [citation] found so far is from the Atlanta Constitution of 25 April 1882: “We notice that John Sherman & Co. have opened a real estate office in Washington. Believing in his heart of hearts that he owns this country, we will be greatly surprised if Mr. Sherman does not attempt to sell out the whole ball of wax under the hammer.”

On to wham bam  ‘have a brief sexual encounter; a brief sexual encounter’, or more generally: ‘do something quickly; something done quickly’. Again, the expression has been around for some time. There’s even a song “Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am!”, written by Hank C Penny and recorded in 1950 by Dean Martin — YouTube video here.

Both idioms are entirely familiar to me, as they are to Max Vasilatos. But maybe the idiom train has moved on, so that young speakers just don’t come across them. Or, of course, they do but don’t notice.

2 Responses to “Ask AMZ”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Another now mostly if not entirely obsolete idiom Is the “whole shooting match” class is “the whole kit and caboodle”, which I came to by a circuitous route, having first encountered it in a fictional misconstruction as “the whole kitamaboodle”.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Max tells me that the men in question were her age, not notably young, so the idea that the main effect might be change in linguistic fashion won’t fly.

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