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All-singing, all-dancing

Q From James Hobart: Where does the expression all-singing, all-dancing come from? I see it most often applied to some computer wizardry that seems to do everything. Is it from the theatre?

A These days you do usually find that it means something that’s equipped with lots of impressive features or which seems to offer everything you could possibly want, and more, though the superlative can be tinged with sarcasm:

Our confidence in James Murdoch’s ability to turn BSkyB into an all-singing, all-dancing multi-media stock, offering broadband and telephony alongside pay TV, proved well founded.

The Independent, 1 January 2008.

An ‘all-singing, all-dancing crimefighting tool’ has been revealed with hopes it will be one of the most comprehensive community safety websites in the country.

East Anglian Daily Times, 5 April 2007.

Various phrases, not too dissimilar in kind, are indeed on record from the playbills of US vaudeville shows. As an example, the Robison Park Theatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana, advertised several acts around 1907 with the phrase talking, singing and dancing. Early attempts at adding sound to film used the same phrase:

The talking, singing and dancing pictures, the latest development in the moving picture art, as presented by the Humanovo company, drew another large crowd to the Racine theater last night.

The Racine Daily Journal, Wisconsin, 2 September 1908. Pay no attention to those people behind the curtain, because they’re actors talking and singing to lip-sync the silent film.

However, the phrase as we know it was created by the promoters of the earliest sound films, several of which were publicised as state-of-the-art aural experiences during 1929. An early musical, Close Harmony, was advertised in March and April that year under versions of the tagline, such as All talking-singing-dancing and 100% all-talking all-singing. The much more famous Broadway Melody employed yet another version. The canonical all-singing, all-dancing came along a few months later. My first sighting is this:

‘The Gold-Diggers of Broadway.’ Warners’ all-color, all-singing, all-dancing hit.

Syracuse Herald, 21 October 1929. This film, now almost entirely lost, was only the second talkie (as sound films were then known) to have been photographed in Technicolor. It was a lively comedy, with a set of popular songs, including Tiptoe Through the Tulips (best known to most people from Tiny Tim’s falsetto version of the 1960s), and lots of lovely showgirls.

All-singing, all-dancing became famous enough, largely through the pressure of these early movie promotions, that it entered the language. Oddly perhaps, in view of its country of origin, the expression appears more often in British newspapers than American these days. Perhaps we haven’t tired of it yet.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Nov. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 11 November 2006.