The release of the film with that title in 1997 provoked requests to explain what it means and where the phrase came from. The former is easy to answer: it just means “the whole thing; everything; the whole lot”. I’d like to oblige regarding the second question, but in the present state of research it’s difficult to say anything much more definitive than “origin unknown”.
It became common in Britain from the early nineties onwards, but has only a sparse recorded history before then. The first reference I’ve come across, dated 1986, is in a book entitled Street Talk, the Language of Coronation Street (Coronation Street being a long-running British soap based on life in a northern town). The next I have is from the Guardian of September 1989:
“What we’re after is a live skeleton — the full monty,” said the stage manager.
One suggestion put forward in a newspaper article is that it was invented in the early eighties by Ben Elton, an alternative comedian, possibly after the model of the whole shebang, which has long been known in Britain, though it originated in the US. But this seems rather unlikely, because my erratic memory is insistent that the phrase was around before the eighties; this impression is backed up by several correspondents who say they heard it as far back as the 1950s. Alas, nobody can provide any documentary evidence for these dates.
It seems that there are almost as many explanations as there are writers doing the explaining. A colleague in the dictionaries department at the Oxford University Press, who has had the thankless job of writing the entry for this expression, claims to have found sixteen different stories. A few of the more common ones are:
The first two of these seem extremely unlikely, and the third is almost certainly a recent play on words by an advertising copywriter. The fourth, the gambling origin, is suggested by Tony Thorne in his Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. He also reminds us that monte was once a common Australian and New Zealand term in horse-racing for a good tip or certain bet. Monte is certainly long-attested in both of these senses, but there’s no firm evidence that the full monty has been derived from it, or when it first appeared, or how it got from America or the antipodes into British usage.
Field Marshal Montgomery, General Montgomery as he was during the Second World War, certainly had the nickname Monty (there was a film, you may recall, with the title I Was Monty’s Double, about a man who impersonated him). The stories about Montgomery mostly refer to his liking for a good breakfast, even in the desert during the North Africa campaign. It is said that the phrase was taken up after the War, presumably by ex-servicemen, as a name for the traditional English breakfast of bacon, eggs, fried bread, tomato, mushrooms, toast, and cup of tea. However, this is just as likely to be a rationalisation of an existing expression, but attached to a well-known public figure in the way such things often are. However, I have been told that it was in common use in transport cafés in the 1950s, so there may be something in it.
The Montague Burton story appears to be the most probable. There’s some slight support for it in that several early citations capitalise monty (though this could, of course, apply equally well to General Montgomery). The expression seems to have been in use longer in the north of England, where the firm originated: Mr Burton’s first shop was opened in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, in 1903, and by 1913 he had his headquarters in Sheffield. (This, of course, fits with the Sheffield setting of the film.) The firm became huge, with more than 500 shops by 1929, and it made a quarter of British uniforms in the Second World War and a third of the demobilisation suits.
Here’s what may be a relevant extract, linking the phrase to tailoring, from John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama, published in 1996 (for which I’m indebted to Nick Skelton):
“What was it we were thinking of having made exactly?”
“Me? Oh, usual sort of thing. Start with a couple o’ lounge suits, see how they go. After that it’s the full Monty.”
“The full Monty,” Pendel repeated in awe, as memories of Uncle Benny nearly drowned him. “It must be twenty years since I heard that expression, Mr Osnard. Bless my soul. The full Monty. My goodness me.”
So far as I’ve been able to discover, Montague Burton never ran a dress hire business, so it is more likely that if the expression originated with them, it did so in relation to the range of suits they sold. A person who knew the business from before the Second World War told me that the firm used to offer a two piece suit as the basic option, but that for a small extra amount you could also have a waistcoat and a spare pair of trousers. Paying the extra meant that you went for the full Monty.
My own preference is for the Montague Burton origin. But that’s just an educated guess, because we don’t have enough evidence. The jury is still out on this one.