Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Whole Thing, Completely, in Its Entirety

Ah, the letter S. Why is it that so many words begin with it?

Is it just me, or is the “S” section of the phonebook thicker than the others? Is it merely a result of my musical preferences that the “S” section of my iTunes library is the largest? And why did I have such a hard time picking this week’s word?

In the end, one word won out, though the runners-up surely merit mentions: scaphism (the practice of coating a person in honey and then tethering them to a tree so as to attract death by unpleasant insects), stenterophonic (given to speaking loudly), saggitary (a centaur; or, more usefully, an archer) spoffokins (a prostitute posing as a person’s wife), and skuggery (secrecy). I could easily use any of these altogether wonderful words later, of course, but this week I decided to pick a word that most Back of the Cereal Box readers would recognize but which I hadn’t thought much about until today.
shebang (shi-BANG) — noun: everything that is involved in what is under consideration
That’s how Webster puts it. It sounds a little technical, but I guess that’s the position most dictionaries take. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term as “a situation, organization, contrivance, or set of facts or things.” Both note that the term is often used in the phrase “the whole shebang,” which, given the Webster’s definition of the stand-alone term, seems a little redundant. Nonetheless, if pressed, I’d attempt my own definition more like this: “the whole goddamn thing, even the parts you might think aren’t included.”

Such a strange word, though, I’ve always felt. Shebang. If interpreted literally, it sounds downright dirty. (It’s not, as we all know. ) And it reminds me of the nonsense syllables that songwriters sometimes use to fill space — something along the lines of shaboom or shamma-lamma-ding-dong or zig-a-zig-ah. You know, the lyrical equivalent of a “TK.” And I’m have to say that I’m surprised to see that I’ve used it on this blog a lot more often than I would have expected.

Shebang’s origins are unknown, according to the people who know these types of things. But wherever the word came from, this place is most likely neither musical nor sexual. While neither Webster nor the AHD offer a source, Wiktionary claims it was first recorded as being used by Walt Whitman in 1862. (It does not say what Walt Whitman text actually used it, though I imagine you could find this with a bit of research.) Wiktionary also proposes the origin of shebang as coming from the French word char-a-banc, a bus-like wagon with many seats. It also notes that Mark Twain later used the term to refer to both a vehicle and “a matter of present concern.” As far as I can tell, only the former is documented: his 1871 lecture “Roughing It.” (Wiki-derived knowledged: the hint of research without the documentation. You don’t have to love it, but Google will inevitably dump you there.)

The Online Etymology Dictionary — which, for all I know, could be compiled by some woman named Mona who took a single linguistics course at the Learning Annex — puts the first documented use of shebang in 1862. It doesn’t say in what. It elaborates that the phrase “the whole shebang” popped up in 1869, but how this usage relates to just plain ol’ shebang isn’t clear. It claims that either or both could come from char-a-banc but the word, when not preceded by “the whole,” means “hut,” “shed,” or “shelter,” and could also come from the Irish and Scottish word shebeen, meaning “a cabin where unlicensed liquor is sold and drunk.”

I suppose we’ll never know where the truth lies, but it’s nonetheless comforting to know that Ricky Martin wasn’t anywhere close to correct in how he used it.

Previous words of the week:


  1. If it wasn't Whitman it should be, after all, he wrote, "I contain shebang-itudes."