Episode 359: March 7, 2013
by Mignon Fogarty
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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.”
Idiom: Pound Sand or Pound Salt?
Last week, I also had an unusual experience with an idiom. My father always uses the expression “Tell them to go pound sand”; but a few days ago, I heard a friend tell someone to go pound salt.
So I looked it up, and unfortunately, it wasn’t in any of the three print idiom dictionaries I have. But I did find some information online.
First, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pound sand” is mostly a N. American phrase, so foreign listeners may not have heard the expression. As I always imagined, its a way to dismiss someone or show contempt, but it has its roots in the idea of a pointless, menial task. (1) You aren’t telling people to go to a beach and pound on the sand in frustration with their fists, you’re telling them to go waste their time shoveling ditches or filling holes.
Interestingly, the Dictionary of American Regional English has this meaning--go waste your time at a useless job--but it also has a longer, related idiom with a different meaning that seems to have come first: pound sand down a rat hole, which you use to say someone is stupid. For example, they have an entry from 1912 that reads, “He wouldn’t know enough to pound sand in a rat-hole,” and one from 1927 that reads “That man does not have sense enough to pound sand in a rat hole.” (3) [Note the difference in hyphenation of “rat hole.” That’s pretty common. See my article about compound words.]
Still, this didn’t answer the “pound salt” question. But I finally found an answer on The Phrase Finder, a site that specializes in idioms. (4) This site notes that there are other places you can pound sand besides a rat hole, and one of the more polite options is in your ears. The site speculates that salt may have been substituted for sand because it would be even more uncomfortable to pound salt into your body than to pound sand.
A Google Ngram search seems to show that “go pound sand” did appear in American English before “go pound salt” and neither phrase is used in British English.
As you can see, you can have a lot of fun tracking down where different idioms come from and how they got their modern day meanings. Some examples, such as “the whole ball of wax,” are based in historical practices; others, such as “the whole kit and caboodle,” are more mundane, and some, like “pound sand,” are harder to track down or have changed their meaning over time.
1. Ammer. C. “whole.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd edition, 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 495.
2. “pound.” Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition. 2006. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149026?redirectedFrom=pound+sand#eid29093665 (accessed March 6, 2013)
3. Hall, J.H. “pound sand down a rat hole.” Dictionary of American Regional English, online edition. http://dare.wisc.edu/?q=node/260 (accessed March 6, 2013).
4. “go pound sand.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/go-pound-sand.html (accessed March 6, 2013).