Meaning: Everything. For example, "If we understand this we understand the whole ball of wax."
[Q] From James Cameron, Australia: “What is the history and origin of the term the whole ball of wax? I have heard explanations indicating that it is derived from workers at Madame Tussauds, but this seems a bit contrived, not to mention trite. I have also heard that it is derived from the term the whole bailiwick. This sounds more convincing to me, but it may be just as contrived. I would appreciate your learned opinion.”
[A] If I had a learned opinion, you would be welcome to it, but mine is almost as much based on ignorance as the next man’s. However, we do know a few facts, and I can add one new one.
What we do know is that the expression means “everything” (and so is essentially the same as other American expressions like the whole nine yards, the whole shooting match, the whole megillah, the whole shebang and the whole enchilada). It is first recorded in the Ninth Edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary of 1953, so it is presumably somewhat older in the oral culture. It was most closely associated in its early days with Madison Avenue advertising people.
We can dismiss the Madame Tussaud’s connection out of hand. It’s the product of an unoriginal mind which has linked wax with waxworks and done the equivalent of making two and two equal five.
The story tying it with bailiwick is even more stretched and unconvincing. It appeared in William and Mary Morris’s The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. They reproduce an English legal text from 1620 which describes the allocation of land among the heirs to an estate by a process very much like a lottery. Each parcel of land was listed on its own piece of paper, sealed inside a small ball of wax, and placed in a hat. Each heir then pulled out one of the balls to discover which part was his. But the text doesn’t mention a bailiwick, which is an area of land all right, but one superintended by a bailiff, and so nothing to do with allotting land to heirs. The story presumably evolved because of some supposed link between bail and ball, and between wick and candle wax. The Morrises were strangely credulous about this story in view of the nearly 400-year and more than 3000-mile gap between that description and the first appearance of the phrase. Whatever the origin, this certainly isn’t it.
However, I did find one real clue, in a disintegrating paperback in my library—a science-fiction novel of 1954 by Shepherd Mead, who two years before had written How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Called The Big Ball of Wax, it is a satire on big business and advertising in America and contains this line from the narrator, a market research man, about the story to come: “Well, why don’t we go back to the beginning and roll it all up, as the fellows say, into one big ball of wax?”, that is, put everything together to make a coherent and complete whole. This sounds too much like a fuller and less elliptical early version of the saying to be a coincidence. It also matches the expansive and slightly surreal type of catchphrase (such as “let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes”) that was common in the advertising world in the US at this period.
It’s a small contribution to knowledge, but mine own …
By Michael Quinion