Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Apple #164: The Whole Shebang

I was cleaning up today, and at one point I thought, "I'd like to just throw the whole shebang in the trash." But then I paused. What kind of word is shebang, anyway? Is it actually spelled she-bang? If so, what does it mean that a bang is feminine? Does its femininity somehow make it a much larger bang?

  • Well, apparently the word is spelled without a hyphen: shebang. It can also be spelled chebang, although that's pretty much not used any more.
  • Strictly speaking, shebang means "hut or dwelling." It can also refer to a vehicle.
  • Lots of people say that the first documented use of the phrase "the whole chebang" to mean the entire dwelling and everything in it, occurred in a letter from Mark Twain to his publisher in 1869. He also used the word "chebang" in its original meaning in the text of one of his novels, Roughing It, which was published in 1872: "We've got a chebang fixed up for you."
  • But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an earlier use of the word "chebang" occurred in 1867, in W.L. Goss's Soldier's Story: "By common consent, if anyone had any complaints to make, he carried them to the 'shebang' of Big Peter." I'd like to know who Big Peter was, but that's another entry.
  • The OED gives no indication about the first use of the phrase "the whole shebang." As for where the word itself comes from, it says, "Of obscure origin."
  • Others have suggested that it might be related to the Irish word shebeen, which is sort of a ratty pub or bar, one that's also usually illegal. Since shebang is often a temporary or crudely constructed house, perhaps the idea is that an illegal bar would also be slapdash, and hence the connection.
  • So there's no connection to the word "bang," although science author Timothy Ferris does make a nice pun in the title of his book on the origins of the universe, The Whole Shebang.
The Oxford English Dictionary, my micrographically reproduced two-volume set.
Etymologies & Word Origins: Letter W
The Phrase Finder Re: The whole shebang
Words to the Wise, issue 193, page 2

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