Quirky 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
4-minute read
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 Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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