Crazy English Idioms

Do you tell people to pound sand or pound salt? Where do we get the expressions “the whole ball of wax”  and “the whole shebang”?

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #359

Crazy English Idioms

 A few weeks ago I got a delightful book in the mail: The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. I love flipping through books like this and find them handy to have around when I hear an odd expression and want to know what it means. Today, I’ll tell you stories about a few interesting idioms and where they come from.

Idiom Example: The Whole Ball of Wax

The first example that caught my eye was the idiom “the whole ball of wax.” It’s a classic idiom because its meaning has nothing to do with what it means literally. It has nothing to do with balls or wax.

People who are learning English have a horrible time with idioms because idioms aren’t logical. You have to memorize their meanings.

“The whole ball of wax” means “everything” or “all the parts.” Here’s an example from a recent news story on an auto racing site. John Force was talking about a motor, and he said,

“It has its own blocks, heads, manifolds, the whole ball of wax. We won a lot of championships with that motor in the car.”

By “whole ball of wax” he means all the parts—it has its own everything.

So why do we talk about wax balls when we mean “everything”? According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, it may come from “a 17th-century practice of  dividing land between heirs by covering scraps of paper representing portions of land with wax, rolling each into a ball, and drawing the balls from a hat.”

Other phrases listed under “whole” in the dictionary have less exciting origin stories, but are still kind of interesting.

The author thinks we say “the whole enchilada” because all the ingredients in an enchilada are wrapped inside one tortilla.

“The whole kit and caboodle” is interesting because it’s doubly redundant. First, “kit” and “caboodle” both mean the same thing: “a group or collection.” But then, the Dictionary says that “caboodle” is a corruption of “kit” and “boodle” because “boodle” also means a collection.

Finally, you may have heard the idiom “the whole shebang.” A shebang is a crude hut. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s North American slang, and I’ve never heard it used outside that set phrase “the whole shebang.”

Next: Pound Sand or Pound Salt?


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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