Full Monty

Take your pick.

Dear Word Detective:  Could you tell me the origin of the expression “full monty”?  I tried dictionaries, encyclopedias, and friends, without any success.  Everybody knows what it means but nobody knows its origin. — Elzbieta from Montreal.

Hey, there’s a question I haven’t seen in a while.  Exactly ten years ago I was inundated with queries from readers about “the full monty.”  I get such waves of questions fairly frequently, always prompted by the sudden prominence of a word or phrase in the popular media. The impetus in this case was the release in the US a few weeks earlier of a British comedy called “The Full Monty” about a group of unemployed steel workers in the north of England who decide to form a Chippendales-style male striptease troupe.  What made the “monty” wave funny was that a few months earlier, the film’s US distributor had actually called me on the phone, asking me to explain the title of their own film to them.  I really should have demanded a screen credit.  Or at least some free popcorn.

Since I’m not certain that everybody does know what the phrase means, I should explain that “the full monty” is British slang for “everything, all the way, the works,” making it essentially synonymous with “the whole shebang” or “the whole nine yards.”  In the film, “the full monty” refers to complete nudity in a striptease show, the subject of some debate among the men (with one character shouting, “No one said anything to me about the full monty!”).  But the phrase most definitely did not originate with the film, having been current in northern England at least since the early 1980s and possibly much earlier.

Just where “the full monty” did come from is a question that may never be definitively answered, although there is no shortage of theories.  One of the most often heard is that the phrase originated as a reference to the famed British military leader of World War II, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (popularly known as “Monty”).  According to this theory, “the full monty” refers either to Montgomery’s blinding raft of medals on the chest of his uniform,  or to his insistence on starting each day with an elaborate breakfast.  Unfortunately, there isn’t even a shred of evidence for either version of the Montgomery theory.

Another theory traces “monty” to “Monte,” Spanish for “mountain” and the name of a now-obsolete card game in which the “pot” of money at stake was called “the Monte.”  To win the pot would therefore be to take “the full monte.”  There is evidence that “monte” was used in this sense (the “shell game” racket known as “three card monte” is certainly alive and well), but, again, there’s not enough evidence to close the case.

Yet another theory, considered by many authorities to be the most plausible, traces “monty” to a well-known chain of tailoring shops owned by Montague Maurice Burton (1885-1952).  A complete three-piece suit bought from Burton’s shops (one of which was in Sheffield, where the film is set) was, according to legend, known as “the full Monty.”  So if a regular guy were getting married, for instance, he might well save up his money and splurge on “the full monty” for the occasion.  I’d say that this is probably the actual origin of the phrase, since Burton’s shops were quite popular and a formal three-piece suit strongly matches the common “whole shebang” usage of “the full monty.”

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