Which comes first: the be all or the end all?

Jan 4, 2015

End all, be all ... be all, end all: The ordering of this phrase appears to have become a bit of a free for all.

A That's What They Say listener wanted to know why we appear to be turning this expression around, so University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan did some investigating.

"It goes back to Shakespeare – MacBeth: 'But this blow might be the be all and the end all.'

"I went into the Corpus of American Contemporary English, which tracks the last 20-plus years of English, and found that with "be all, end all" the historical use is more common by about five to one. But you can find examples where "end all" comes first."

Curzan says "end all" has a life of its own.

"People say things like 'We knew we couldn't provide an end-all solution,' or 'That's not the end-all we were striving for."

Another listener questioned the use of "few and far between."

"This is another one where I think things are getting turned around," Curzan says. "Historically, the expression is 'few and far between,' which makes sense: There aren't that many of them, and you have to go a long time before you hit the next one.

"But you can find examples online of people saying 'far and few between.' I think perhaps what they're getting at is that the first time you're going to see something is a little ways off – it's far – and then there are very few after that."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase "far between" showed up as an adjective in 1795, Curzan says, and it quickly came into the expression"few and far between."

Curzan also looked into "free for all."

"It goes back to the mid 19th century, and it was a race that was free – for all – but it also seems to mean because anybody could join, it was also a little bit uncontrolled, and that's the meaning that has stuck."