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What Does "Box and Dice" Mean?

J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

"Box and dice" is an idiomatic English expression, most common in Australian English, which means "the whole thing." It is usually part of a longer phrase, most commonly "the whole box and dice." The expression is one of a number of similar terms called merisms.

The phrase "the whole box and dice" probably originates from dice games. In many such games, players store the dice in a small box or cup, often made of wood or leather, when not in use. In some games, the box or cup actually forms part of play. For example, in the game "liar's dice," players cover their dice with a box to conceal the value of the score they have rolled.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

In games of this type, the box and dice are the only pieces of equipment required to play. To have them is therefore to have everything necessary for the game. This is the most likely origin for the use of this expression as a term for "the whole thing."

A wide variety of similar expressions exist, many with similarly obscure origins. Examples include "the whole kit and caboodle," "the whole shooting match," "the whole megillah" and "the whole shebang." Other expressions, like "lock, stock and barrel" or "hook, line and sinker" share the multi-part structure of "the whole box and dice." These expressions are called merisms.

A merism is an expression in which several parts of a whole serve as an image of the whole. For instance, the Biblical phrase "the heavens and the earth" indicates all of creation, while "high and low" or "up and down" are alternative ways of saying "everywhere." Similarly, the box and dice, which are the parts of the equipment for dice games, serve by analogy to describe the whole of whatever thing is being discussed. Like most merisms, the order of the words is never reversed: the expression is always "the whole box and dice," never, for example, "the whole dice and box."

The phrase is not common in either American or British English. It is, however, common enough in Australian English that it is frequently identified as a distinctive Australianism. It first appeared in print as an Australian slang term in the 1930s, but may have been in use for some time before being recorded. Because of its identification with Australian English, it is also the name of an Australian wine and the title of at least one Australian memoir.

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