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Part and parcel

Q From Malcolm Ross-Macdonald, Ireland: Has the parcel in the stock phrase part and parcel anything to do with the parcel handled by the Post Office? I recall resellers of war-surplus goods in the 1940-50s breaking their inventory into parcels that would have required a 3-ton lorry to shift.

A The Post Office kind of parcel (which Americans would prefer to call a package) is a very specific sense of a word that has had a large number of meanings down the centuries.

In its widest sense it can mean an amount or quantity of something, an extremely wide-ranging usage — you can have parcels of land, for example. The OED illustrates its variety over the past couple of centuries with these: parcel of work, parcel of weather, parcel of nonsense, parcel of spray, parcel of rogues and parcel of shares. It can mean a quantity of a commodity offered as a single transaction, a lot, so a tiny package of diamonds offered for auction and your three-tonner load of equipment are both parcels.

All of these in various ways perpetuate the first sense of a parcel as being a constituent or part of some larger whole, a portion or division. This reflects its origins: parcel has come to us via Old French from the post-classical Latin particella, a part or portion.

That makes part and parcel a tautology, since both words in effect mean the same thing. English loves this kind of doublet: nooks and crannies, hale and hearty, safe and sound, rack and ruin, dribs and drabs. Many derive from the ancient legal practice of including words of closely similar meaning to make sure that the sense covers all eventualities: aid and abet, fit and proper, all and sundry.

Part and parcel is a member of this second group — it appeared in legal records during the sixteenth century. We use it to emphasise that the thing being spoken about is an essential and integral feature or element of a whole:

“Do you believe in an afterlife?” “I believe that the energy we have as living human beings is still part and parcel of the universe at some level and makes a difference.”

Financial Times, 6 Jul. 2013.

Southern US English has the mildly humorous variant passel — deriving from a nineteenth-century pronunciation of parcel and often preceded by whole — suggesting a largish group of people or things (passel of problems, passel of accusations, passel of experts).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Aug. 2013

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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.

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Last modified: 24 August 2013.