Q&A: Where does “the whole shebang” come from

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have big shebang theories…

Q: Hey AWC, I have a question for you.

A: Good, because that’s literally your job here.

Q: What’s the deal with “the whole shebang”? What exactly IS a shebang?

A: Isn’t that a Ricky Martin song?

Q: I prefer the William Hung version, haha. But no, I’m assuming it has nothing to do with either of these?

A: You’re right, it doesn’t. Macquarie Dictionary lists “shebang” as colloquial, meaning “a thing, affair; business”. But in reality, most people use it in the phrase “the whole shebang” – which it defines separately as, the totality of something; the lot; everything”.

Q: That’s the one. “Balloons, fireworks – the whole shebang.”

A: Sounds like a fun party. Meanwhile, the American Merriam-Webster Dictionary keeps its definition simple, listing “shebang” aseverything involved in what is under consideration – usually used in the phrase ‘the whole shebang’.” 

Q: So we’ve established what it means. But who is she? And why is she banging this everything, everywhere, all at once?

A: Haha, well there is NO she in this case. The word seems to have become popular as slang during the American Civil War of the early 1860s – used by soldiers to mean a rough hut, shed or shelter. Poet Walt Whitman also wrote about it in this context, describing soldiers living in “shebang enclosures of bushes” and coming “out from their tents or shebangs of bushes.” It is thought to have been adapted from the French word ‘chabane’.

Q: As in “cabin”?

A: Yes, the French word “cabane” (of which this is related) was the origin of the English “cabin” and Spanish “cabana”.

Q: I still don’t get what a soldier’s hut has to do with “the whole thing”?

A: Fair enough. The phrase “the whole shebang” was first recorded in 1869, and the link between it and a hut or shelter seems to be fuzzy at best. The phrase is more likely to have come from another French term, “char-á-banc” – which was a bus-like wagon with many seats. 

Q: A bus? “The whole char-á-banc”?

A: That’s right. The original party bus, if you will. In his 1872 book, Roughing It, Mark Twain curiously used the word “shebang” to first describe a rough shed but then a chartered wagon more like a “char-á-banc”. He may have simply been getting clever with words, but the “vehicle” meaning stuck around for some time.

Q: Hmmm, so we have it meaning a hut or shelter, then a vehicle…

A: Oh, it also got used for an inn or tavern – earlier known as “shebeens” in Ireland.

Q: Seriously? Okay, but none of these seem to have ANYTHING to do with “totality, the lot or everything”, right?

A: Correct – and this is where English will sometimes admit that despite its best intentions to trace its ancestors and produce a squeaky-clean family tree, there are simply some words that were conceived in a drunken orgy around the back of the pub.

Q: The shebeen!

A: Exactly. That said, there WAS one theory describing a bomb hitting a hut/hideout during the Civil War and taking out “the whole shebang” – although this feels more retrofitted than actual recorded text. It’s more likely it evolved from the informal sources we’ve mentioned but ultimately took hold with a life of its own – perhaps relating to an entire shed or vehicle filled with passengers. It makes as much sense as similar phrases “the whole enchilada” or “the whole ball of wax”. 

Q: So, to recap – it started in the war as slang, but then got a different, more legit meaning later. But ultimately, it doesn’t really mean anything.

A: Quite the contrary – it means EVERYTHING.

Q: Yeah yeah, Okay.

A: By the way, a lot of words started out as informal words used by soldiers in wars. For example, that same American Civil War gave us the wonderful “skedaddle” – meaning to run away quickly. It also has foggy origins, it’s likely to have been adapted from an archaic northern English dialect word “scaddle” – which meant to scare or frighten. 

Q: Any other fun “shebang” trivia before I skedaddle?

A: Yes actually. In computer programming language, “#!” is called a shebang – used at the beginning of a script to tell the operating system which interpreter to use to execute the file…

Q: Ummm, I think I’ll just stick to being confused by English!


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