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The whole megillah

Q From Joe Hannabach: I wonder what the origin of the phrase the whole magilla might be. It’s used in the same sense as the whole nine yards. There used to be a cartoon character on American TV called Magilla Gorilla, I think.

A

Shush! Don’t throw suggestions around carelessly like that. You’ll start an urban legend and then we’ll never get the word’s history straight ever again. The name of Magilla Gorilla is not the origin of the expression; the situation is probably the other way about, in that the expression may have been an inspiration for Mr Gorilla’s first name.

It’s really spelled megillah, and it’s the Hebrew word for a scroll. In particular, it refers to one of five books of the Old Testament, namely Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, which are read on certain Jewish special days. The most common reference, though, is to the Book of Esther, which is read in its entirety at the feast of Purim.

Though the feast day is a joyous one, the story wanders at great length through vast amounts of detail and it can be a bit of a trial to sit through it all. So it isn’t surprising that the whole Megillah (in the Yiddish from which American English borrowed it, gantse Megillah) came to be a wry term for an overly extended explanation or story, or for something tediously complicated, or an involved situation or state of affairs.

The English translation of the Yiddish phrase started to be heard and written about the middle of the 1950s, principally by American television performers, night-club hosts and others in the entertainment business, mostly in the big cities such as New York. Frank Sinatra sang it in Come Blow Your Horn in 1963: “The taller the tree is — the sweeter the peach / I’ll give you the whole magilla — in a one word speech — reach”. The lyric is saying that he will condense a long and boring explanation into a single word. However, at this period, the full phrase the whole megillah was still comparatively rare. A more typical usage was in the Post Standard of Syracuse, New York, in December 1965: “Silly, those people who make a megillah out of acting. Just learn the lines; the rest is up to the director.”

It was only in the early 1970s that the meaning you mention started to appear: “the whole thing, all that might be expected”. The first recorded use in this sense is in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1971.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 13 Oct. 2001
Last updated 29 Mar. 2005

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 29 March 2005.