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The lines between different sorts of formulaic expressions are often hard to draw: idiom, snowclone, cliché, catchphrase, or what? Yesterday I posted on my blog about a case that combines features of snowclones and idioms: the formula THE WHOLE X 'the whole matter, everything to do with the matter', the most famous exemplar of which is the whole nine yards, as in:

We had a blowout celebration: champagne, ice sculptures, the whole nine yards.

There are quite a few fillers for X (which is why the formula looks like a snowclone). These range from the semantically colorless thing; through business, deal, and package; through the more figurative circus and kitchen sink (imported from the cliché everything but the kitchen sink); to the conventionalized and opaque ball of wax, enchilada, megillah, nine yards, schmear, shebang, and shooting match. It's this last set that interests me here.

The history of some of the items in this set is unclear or disputed; in fact, some of them might have begun as sheer inventions, without a semantic rationale. For some of the others, the history has been traced, but few people who use the expressions are likely to appreciate it. (My blog posting has some of the details.) It's the conventional and opaque character of these fillers that makes THE WHOLE X look like a family of idioms.

Maybe we should call THE WHOLE X a snowclidiom — part snowclone, part idiom.

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