Shakespeare has Macbeth, in his “If it were done when ’tis done” speech, say “That but this blow/ Might be the be all, and the end all,” and like so many of his catchy bits, this has passed into general discourse. But in what form? Aye, there’s the rub. All the dictionaries I routinely consult—M-W, AHD, and the Concise Oxford—have it only as “be-all and end-all” (with or without hyphens), which is what I myself say, but it has come to my attention that many people omit the “and” and reverse the order, saying “end all, be all.” The reverse order has fairly hoary precedent (the OED quotes T. P. Thompson’s 1830 Exercises: “This is the end-all and be-all of the anti-liberals’ piety”), but the omission of the conjunction strikes me as odd. We still have judgment here, though it counts for nothing in the scheme of things, so I appeal to the assembled multitudes. Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and tell us what form you use, and whether you’re familiar with the Shakespearian source.


  1. I don’t use this idiom very often, but when I do, I think I would say either “the be-all and the end-all” or “the be-all and end-all.” I couldn’t have told you off the top of my head that it was from Macbeth.

  2. Yeah, I couldn’t have told you it was from Macbeth either. Amazing how many things we’ve absorbed from Shakespeare without noticing.

  3. I’m afraid I also omit the conjugation, but keep the order. I did a quick google search to see if it was a personal idiosyncrasy and found a video of Sarah Palin saying it. I think I’m going to try to switch to your way.

  4. A second vote for “the be-all and end-all”.

  5. and found a video of Sarah Palin saying it
    As they say on the internet, pics or didn’t happen!

  6. “The be-all and end-all” and I remember reading that speech in school, but never noticed the phrase in it or connected the two. Looking at the link, it’s a long monologue and I probably skipped the entire middle.

  7. “The be all and end all.” Never heard the reverse version. I did know the origin of this one, though of course there are countless more than I don’t. Some are remarkably low-level — e.g. “neither here nor there” from Othello.

  8. “The be all and end all.” Who is this MacBeth?

  9. I think I say “the be all and end all”, and I think I’ve heard or seen “the be all, end all”, but I haven’t heard the reversed version.

  10. I’d say “be-all and end-all”, though I’m not sure I’ve ever used it. Just recently I was watching the Ian McKellen/Judi Dench film version of Macbeth, and remember thinking “So that’s where that idiom’s from”.

  11. Google reveals that semi-regular commenter marc has used “end-all, be-all” at least twice on this very site. I say we summon him and demand an explanation.

  12. marie-lucie says

    This may merely reveal my ignorance, but I wonder whether many of those sayings attributed to Shakespeare as his own creations were not common in everyday speech at the time, at least in some regions or among some segments of the population. Dictionaries rely on written documents: the oldest document quoted shows that the word was in use at a certain time, and rarely that the word was actually coined by the author quoted. In any language, many words or phrases commonly used in everyday speech just did not make it into written documents until they had been adopted as suitable for written use by at least a portion of the writing population (which for a long time was a small minority of the general population). When was Shakespeare well enough known that critics made comments on his linguistic creativity? I think that there is a difference between things like “This is the winter of our discontent” or “would the multitudinous sea incarnadine”, which are obviously literary, and “It’s neither here nor there” which sounds conversational, then or now.
    Comparing the relative influences of Shakespeare and the King James Version, which are roughly contemporary, on the English language, the KJV was for centuries the one book read, or at least known (from being read in church) by the majority of the English-speaking population, so that many phrases derived from this translation were, and still are, known to millions of people, but the works of Shakespeare did not reach such a wide audience.

  13. ‘the be-all and end-all’. The others (elided conjunction, reversed order) sound strange, although if I heard them I guess I would interpret them as someone’s ‘innovation’ or ‘twist’ on the real thing.

  14. “the be-all and the end-all”
    Didn’t know it was from Shakespeare.
    Didn’t know “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/ It were done quickly” was from Macbeth. Like so many things, I learned it from Bertie Wooster.

  15. “be all and end all” here, too. Though well aware of the lines (I’ve had them by heart these forty years) I’d never noticed the discrepancy.

  16. The beginning-stress of be-all and end-all suggests they are compounds, and the parts of a compound may themselves be compound, so if we can find compounds with conjunctive sense in English, it might be possible to form a compound of compounds: ((end-all)-(be-all)). If such a compound followed the general rule for compounds, it would have stress on its first part (and that would put the main stress of the whole thing on the “end-“). However, compounds with conjunctive sense in English (termed “dvandva”) seem to have end stress: “tractor-trailer”, “Alsace-Lorraine”. So if the principle stress in end-all-be-all is on the “be” syllable (and secondary stress on “end”), that would confirm the analysis of this as a dvandva compound formed from the two compounds end-all and be-all.

  17. Greg: Tractor-trailer is an excellent example of an English dvandva compound! Thanks.
    m-l: You’re quite right, of course: “first used by Shakespeare” is just a shorthand, and rarely if ever justifiable.

  18. “Be all and end all” is all I’ve ever known. Bit of an eye opener to see it in reverse. This Thompson fellow (is 1830 really hoary when discussing Shakespeare?), he could be either showing off or screwing up. Gilding refined gold or painting the lily, throwing perfume on the violet, as it were.

  19. Yes, I’m familiar with the source, since high school many decades ago. Loved Macbeth, and this particular speech, ever since. Don’t recall using the phrase but would probably never reverse the order–for one I’d say ‘end’ should be placed at the end … also, I think the end-all clinches it the way it should at least in the context of the speech. As for other alterations … why not? I’d expect them to be intentional, however, not just the result of poor memory…

  20. Michelle J. says

    I’ve heard “end-all, be-all” many, many times. Maybe it’s a regional thing? (I grew up in the western U.S.)

  21. ‘. . .the be-all and the end-all’ for me too. Definitely +conjunction, +two definite articles, +hyphens. Can’t say I’ve ever heard the reverse, and it’s so odd I think it would stick in my memory.

  22. Of course, now I’m sure to run across it.

  23. “be all and end all”
    I knew it was in Shakespeare but I didn’t think it was necessarily from Shakespeare.

  24. “When was Shakespeare well enough known that critics made comments on his linguistic creativity?”
    Eighteenth century; sometimes negatively.
    “”It’s neither here nor there” which sounds conversational, then or now”
    Yes of course — I simply meant it was the first literary attestation.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Thanks JC and Conrad. I get the impression that many people think that “first literary attestation” means the same as “coined by the author”, so Shakespeare is credited with an astonishing number of word or phrase creations. It is not diminishing him to suspect that many of his less-literary phrases were already in circulation in informal contexts: otherwise, much of his language would have been impenetrable to his audience.
    Of course when “poetic diction” became the fashion, some aspects of Shakespeare’s works sounded much too colloquial for the prevailing tastes, and the mixing of registers in his plays was thoroughly rejected.

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