The Whole Shebang

And Toto too.

Dear Word Detective: A co-worker and I were wondering about the origin of the phrase “the whole shebang” and being a good little researcher, I searched your web site. While I found that you had used the phrase in numerous columns, I did not find that you had elucidated its origin(s). Could you please do so? — Patricia Reifel.

Something tells me I need a better index on my site. I actually wrote a column on “the whole shebang” several years ago, but it’s hard to find because it’s in the “old” part of the site, a cavernous ramshackle godown where the lights are dim and the shelves are deep with dust. It’s a spooky place. Some people say they’ve seen and heard things in there late at night, things that scamper and chuckle, things too big to be mice. I guess it wasn’t such a good idea to build my site on an ancient burial ground for copy editors, huh?

Speaking of things being elusive, the origin of “the whole shebang,” which we use today to mean “the whole thing or matter, all, everything,” would give Moby Dick a run for his money in the “hard to find” sweepstakes. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), for example, replies, when asked, with a curt “Of obscure origin,” which is a bit frustrating.

The surprising thing is that we do have a fairly good map of the history of “the whole shebang.” We know that it first appeared in print during the American Civil War (1862, to be precise) meaning “a hut or shed, one’s living quarters,” at first a temporary shelter for soldiers in the field, but later meaning any sort of crude, makeshift dwelling (“We’ve got a shebang fixed up for you to stand behind, in No. I’s house,” Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872).

Oddly enough (and this is pretty odd under the circumstances), at roughly the same time “shebang” started being used to mean “a vehicle, especially a rented coach.” The first use of this sense in print found so far comes, in fact, from the same 1872 Twain book “Roughing It” where “shebang” has first been found meaning “shed” (“You’re welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang’s chartered”). It may be that in both instances Twain meant simply “shambles” or “rattletrap,” but “shebang” went on to be used by other writers as well to mean “vehicle.” It’s also possible that this particular sense of “shebang” is related to, or influenced by, the French “char-à-banc” (literally “benched carriage”), meaning a bus or coach with benches.

Closer to the end of the 19th century, we come upon yet another use of “shebang,” this time to mean a tavern or hotel of low repute and dubious legality, i.e., a “dive” (“There was a sort of sheebang — you couldn’t call it a hotel if you had any regard for the truth — on the outskirts of Walsh for the accommodation of wayfarers without a camp-outfit,” 1908). This sense seems logically connected to the “hut” or “shed” sense.

Almost since its first appearance in print in the 1860s, “shebang” had also been used in a persistently vague general sense of “the thing” or “the matter,” and it was this sense that evolved into the idiom “the whole shebang,” first appearing in that form in the 1870s, but becoming truly popular only in the 20th century.

While the verifiable origin of “shebang” may be, as the OED says, “obscure,” there is one source considered likely by many authorities. The Irish term “shebeen” (from the Irish “seibin,” small mug), which first appeared in print in the late 18th century, means an unlicensed tavern in a shed or even a run-down private house where liquor is illegally dispensed. Given that a popular use of “shebang” in 19th century America was to mean “dive,” it seems highly likely that our “shebang” began life as the Irish “shebeen.”

Page 1 of 2 | Next page