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The whole shebang

Q From Edward Shaw; a related question came from Peter Fowles: I found myself using the phrase the whole shebang the other night within earshot of my eight-year-old grandson, and when he queried me as to its meaning, I was stumped for a definition, as I could not reconstruct the word’s origin from its spelling, in whole or in pieces. The dictionaries I consulted were of no help, nor did I find any treatment of it on World Wide Words. Any insights?

A It’s possible to say a surprising amount about this American expression, though nobody has yet unequivocally traced it to its source.

It starts to appear in printed sources in the early 1860s, as a term on the frontier and among the military for what Samuel Bowles described in his book of 1865, Across the Continent, as “any kind of an establishment, store, house, shop [or] shanty”. One type of establishment was an inn or saloon, a use of shebang that was previously known only from later in the century but which I have now found from the 1860s. This is the earliest so far:

Along all the roads on the reservation to all the mines, at the crossing of every stream or fresh-water spring, and near the principal Indian villages, an inn or “shebang” is established, ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor to Indians.

Annual Report of the US Department of the Interior, 1862.

It was also a term of frontiersmen for a shanty or rough cabin and by soldiers (this is the Civil War period, remember) for a bivouac or other temporary accommodation. The poet Walt Whitman wrote in his diary in December 1862 about the terrible conditions of the soldiers following the first battle of Fredericksbug, often living in “shebang enclosures of bushes”.

Lexicographers share your puzzlement about where it comes from. It appears quite suddenly with no obvious antecedents. It’s tempting to suggest a link with shanty but it is hard to see how the shift in pronunciation could occur. One early report in an army context writes of shebangs, as the soldiers called them, “especially those of the Teutonic persuasion”. This is, I suspect, a red herring.

As some very early examples refer to drinking establishments, it is tempting to look to the Irish shebeen, an unlicensed and often disreputable drinking place (in origin the Anglo-Irish síbín, from séibe, a mugful) as its origin. A shift from shebeen to shebang has been seriously suggested by the experts and seems to be a very plausible origin.

Other senses come along later. By 1867, the word had moved from its military and outdoorsman setting to become part of the vocabulary of ordinary people, meaning a dwelling house, albeit one of poor quality. In 1872, Mark Twain was the first of several writers to use it for a hired vehicle. This might be from a quite different source, the French char-à-bancs, a carriage with benches (which became the British English charabanc). It may well have been influenced by shebang already existing in other senses.

Whatever the source, shebang took on yet a third sense early on to mean something like “the business” or “the current concern”, so leading to the whole shebang, the entire setup, or whole affair or matter, which is recorded from 1870:

But it floated bravely — bravely enough, as Evan, coming back for Luti, assured her, “to take the whole shebang at once, only Morgan refused to let the trial be made.”

Sea Drift, by Marian Reeves, 1870.

The most likely source is again military. Officers are recorded during the Civil War as “running the shebang” (for example in a diary of 1864 reproduced in Susanne Wilson’s compilation Column South of 1960), in which shebang seems to refer to the whole of an encampment or other military establishment, a straightforward extension of the idea of a single bivouac.

Page created 11 Dec. 2010

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Last modified: 11 December 2010.